The Tonto National Forest has settled nearly all of the remaining questions that have bedeviled the effort to sell 253 acres for a university campus in Payson and expects to transfer title to the Rim Country Educational Alliance by January, Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, speaking before the Democratic Club of Northern Gila County, predicted construction on the site will start early next year and the first 600 students will enroll in 2015.
During a stop in Payson on Thursday, Bosworth said he expects to sign off on the environmental assessment within two weeks, once the Tonto Forest has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the State Historic Preservation Office.
The Alliance has agreed to put up a $500,000 bond to guarantee that consultants can complete an estimated $225,000 project to excavate several sites.
“I think we’re there,” said Bosworth of the effort to clear away the issues raised by the discovery of artifacts, including a recent request from the Hopi Tribe that the Forest Service do a report on the cultural and historical uses of the area by Native Americans. The Hopi believe that people who lived in this area 600 years ago eventually settled on the Hopi Mesas in Northern Arizona.
Bosworth said most of the archaeological concern centers on a site that may have served as a seasonal camp or settlement. Archaeological consultants will probably spend about six weeks fully excavating that site, while making superficial excavations of 10 other places where the consultants doing the environmental assessment found suspected pottery shards.
It might take another six months to prepare the final archaeological reports, but Bosworth said he could transfer title once he gets a preliminary report, thanks to the agreement to provide a bond that will guarantee completing of the work.
Bosworth said the Tonto National Forest would prepare a cultural/historical report at the request of the Hopis, without asking the Alliance to cover the cost.
“I have the authority to move forward,” said Bosworth, who gained that authority when officials in Washington, D.C. approved the direct sale of the land to the Alliance.
Bosworth said once he signs the environmental assessment, the Alliance can get an appraisal to establish the sale price. Based on the appraisal of similar land on the opposite side of the highway, the purchase price might come in at around $7 million.
In the meantime, the Forest Service will hook up the existing water system on the property to Payson’s water system.
“That seems pretty symbolic, hooking up to the town’s system,” said Joel Mona, acting head of the Payson Ranger District in the absence of Ranger Angie Elam, who is on assignment in Washington D.C.
Tonto National Forest will use the money the Alliance pays for the land to build a new visitor center and firefighting facilities on the roughly 50 acres it will retain around the existing Payson Ranger Station.
“The big piece was the direct sale authority,” said Bosworth. “Everything I’ve gotten from everybody since is good.”
Evans in a question and answer session on Wednesday said negotiators for the Alliance have reopened discussions with Arizona State University about the project, now that the Alliance knows when it will have title to the land.
Evans said the university would help address a critical problem – the low college graduation rates of young people who grow up in rural areas like Gila County. Even though 90 percent of the students will come from outside the immediate area, the setting should appeal to the families of many students who grew up in small towns.
“Only one in five students in rural Arizona want to go to college — and only 2 percent get through the system,” said Evans. “That’s a huge problem.”
Concluding the land sale guarantees the project will go forward, but a lot of work remains, he said. Arizona State University remains the preferred partner, but the Alliance and ASU have to revisit the terms they mostly agreed on late last year, said Evans. If those talks once again falter, five other universities have expressed interest in operating a campus here. The financing remains intact, although at a higher rate than the original plans envisioned.
He said the town and the Alliance are working to a now-urgent succession of details, since the Forest Service has agreed to sell the land and settled on a timeline.
Plans call for a campus that starts with 600 students in 2015 and builds up to 6,000 students in the course of the next decade, he said. The gradual buildup will provide time for Payson to develop a workforce that could support such a major, year-round business. The university would have more than twice as many students as the Payson School District, which is currently the biggest employer in town.
“We can’t just build a school. One of the biggest problems we face is the shortage of employable folks,” he said.
For instance, Evans noted that three ammunition manufacturers want to establish what amounts to a small industrial park near the existing ammunition-maker up by the airport. The three firms would bring 277 jobs to town, but are concerned that not enough qualified people live in the area to fill those jobs. As a result, Payson and the businesses have had discussions with vocational training programs in the East Valley, he said.
The university campus would likely offer six undergraduate degrees, each with a connection to a career pathway. Two will focus on “sustainability” degrees, like forest management, solar energy and others. Two will involve education, which could lead to a teaching degree. Two will involve more general education, with majors that are “career directed.”
The Forest Service site “gives us the opportunity to have 4,000 students living on campus,” said Evans, with the remaining 2,000 students at build-out living in the community.
With the direct sale approved, the university will no longer need to put classroom buildings or dorms on the opposite side of the highway on the roughly 22 acres owned by Gila County or another 60 acres or so the Alliance has an option to buy. However, Evans said that block of almost 100 acres opposite the campus will likely provide a site for things like a research park and business incubation center connected to the campus.