Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth this week signed off on the environmental assessment for the sale of 253 acres to build a university in Payson, clearing one of the key hurdles in the long struggle to transform the local economy.
Bosworth’s signature starts the clock running on a 45-day appeals period, which means the sale can go through sometime after Sept. 30.
“We are very excited about the opportunities this land sale will bring to the Rim Country,” said Bosworth. “We appreciate the patience and support of the partners who have worked through this with us. When we conclude this environmental process as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), we will know we have done the right things for the right reasons.”
“We are elated to be at this stage in the process,” commented Steve Drury, chairman of the Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE), which is building the campus and various spinoff facilities. “We’ve patiently worked through many, many obstacles to get to this point. The local Forest Service officials have been outstanding partners throughout.”
Arizona State University, the Alliance’s “preferred partner,” has not yet said publicly it intends to build a campus here, although sources indicated that the two sides had resolved all the key outstanding issues last December.
This week’s announcement guarantees the Alliance will get the land and so satisfies one of the key conditions ASU set before committing to partner with the Alliance to build and operate a 6,000-student campus in Payson. However, the Alliance and ASU suspended active talks back in December when they both realized it would take months to win Forest Service approval of the direct sale of the land and a plan to deal with pottery shards and other archaeological remains uncovered by the consultants who conducted the environmental assessment.
Sources close to the negotiations say ASU and Alliance representatives have had recent discussions, but not yet reopened formal negotiations.
The project nearly stalled in December as backers frantically sought a way to deal with the archaeological sites without delaying sale of the land.
Backers hope to complete the infrastructure plan this year and begin building early next year. They want to open the first phase involving about 1,000 students in 2015.
In a prepared release hailing the signoff on the EA, the Alliance said it will this week finalize a performance bond guaranteeing the excavation of the suspected archaeological sites. The bond allows the Forest Service to transfer title of the land even if the archaeological work isn’t yet finished.
Meanwhile, Tonto National Forest has paid for a ethno-historic study requested by the Hopi Tribe. That study summarizes the Native American history of the region. The Hopis believe several clans with members living now on the Hopi Mesas are descendants of the Mogollon people who lived in Rim Country 600 to 1,000 years ago. The Mogollons left many sites, including the village preserved as part of the Shoofly Ruins off Houston Mesa Road. They occupied a cultural crossroads along major trade routes that connected the Hohokam in the Valley, the Sinagua in Sedona and Flagstaff and the Sinagua living along the Salt River in the Tonto Basin.
Drury said the Alliance is also obtaining interim financing to buy the land and pay for remaining pre-development costs. At one point, backers had to raise about $150,000 from the community to pay for the environmental assessment, when investors said they didn’t want to put out any more money without a guarantee the Forest Service would actually sell the land. The Alliance said when it completes the project with donations and up to $400 million in financing, it will put the $150,000 donated by the community back into scholarships.
The backers must now pay for an independent appraisal of the property at the corner of Highway 87 and Rim Club Parkway. That appraisal will determine the the purchase price.
In a major boon for the Tonto National Forest, Congress 12 years ago specified that when the parcel sells, the Tonto Forest can use the money to build facilities. The Payson Ranger District hopes to build a new visitor center and upgrade its scattered, undersized facilities for firefighters — including a helipad near the Gila County Maintenance Yard on the outskirts of Star Valley.
The Alliance in October will launch phase one of construction, including onsite engineering, layout and site planning; work on water, streets and power infrastructure will start this fall.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said, “It’s been remarkable to see what can be achieved when all parties come together and share the same vision. The Forest Service, the Alliance, our local team of volunteers have all worked tirelessly to achieve this goal. Their determination has been unwavering in the face of many challenges. We will achieve this historic objective for the Rim Country and bring a university campus here, thanks to their commitment, effort and dedication.”
Studies of the economic impact of small university campuses suggest that the campus alone will inject $100 million to $150 million into the local economy annually, with much of the impact coming in the normally-slow winter months. Backers say the project will also include a 500-room conference hotel, industrial research parks, an innovation center to convert research into products, an upgrade in Internet capacity that will make the entire town a Wi-Fi hot spot while offering new, cost-effective college options for students.
Backers have crawled through miles of bureaucratic barbed wire to reach this point. One huge hurdle involved convincing the Forest Service to act on the authority to sell the land Congress granted 12 years ago. The project fell into Forest Service limbo prior to roughly a year ago when Bosworth came on as Tonto National Forest supervisor and Angie Elam became head ranger for the Payson Ranger District.
Together, they worked tenaciously to push the land sale through the intricate, time-consuming, sometimes mind-numbing Forest Service process. The project stalled for more than four months as local backers raised the $150,000 necessary to not only pay the consultants to prepare the environmental assessment — but to pay Tonto National Forest to supervise the consultants.
The consultants found no problems with endangered species or other hot-button issues, but did find suspected pottery shards in 11 locations and some tenuous signs of an encampment in one of those locations. Even though the consultants found no evidence of a major village or site, the thick set of federal rules relating to historical sites prompted the Forest Service to insist on more study and a commitment to preserve any artifacts unearthed. More careful study of the existing sites will cost an estimated $225,000, but the Alliance is putting up a $500,000 bond to guarantee completion of the archaeological work no matter what the consultants find and no matter what happens to the overall university plan. The most significant potential site sits on a ridge near a cluster of boulders where the backers didn’t plan to build anything.
In addition, the process of getting approval of a direct sale of the land from first the regional office in Albuquerque and then the national office in Washington took seven months, far longer than backers had assumed.