The Rim Country Educational Alliance has signed an agreement with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to allow the purchase of 260 acres of Forest Service land to move forward while consultants excavate an archaeological site.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the Alliance and SHPO clears the way for Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth to sign off on the environmental assessment of the sale for land on which the Alliance plans to build a 6,000-student university campus.
“We’ve achieved another key milestone this week,” said Alliance Chairman Steve Drury. “I’m very pleased to note that this one was achieved ahead of schedule.”
Tonto National Forest still wants to complete a report on the cultural history of the area. The Alliance is also establishing a $500,000 bond to guarantee completion of the archaeological study of several sites where the environmental assessment revealed pottery shards and one sign of an encampment.
Bosworth did not return a call seeking comment on Monday, but has previously said he would sign off on the environmental assessment quickly once SHPO approved the plan to deal with the pottery shards.
In a release this week, the Alliance said it is finalizing financing now and will begin an onsite engineering, layout and site planning in October. Infrastructure construction for water, streets and power should start in the fall, with groundbreaking early next year after the Forest Service transfers title.
The Alliance has still not finalized an agreement with Arizona State University, the “preferred partner” for the ambitious plan. Five other universities have expressed interest, but the Alliance is currently negotiating exclusively with ASU. The two sides said they had agreed on all the major issues last December, before unexpected delays in winning Forest Service approval of a direct sale of the parcel at the corner of Highway 260 and Rim Club Parkway.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said, “We owe a debt of gratitude to our local Forest Service officials, who have demonstrated extraordinary partnership and commitment.
“Now that the land acquisition process is moving forward with a closing date in sight, we can resume meaningful dialogue with ASU,” continued Evans. “Thanks to the work and efforts of the Forest Service officials and the support of the Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer, we will be able to expedite the timeline for the land purchase by more than a month.”
Drury said the Alliance will finalize the details of the bond soon. “We won’t know the actual scope of the mitigation, until the work starts. The bond enables all parties to be comfortable that the work will be initiated and completed, even though we won’t own the property at the time the treatment work begins,” explained Drury.
The bond also enables various types of prep work to occur on the site.
The discovery of scatters of pottery shards presumably left by Mogollon people sometime before A.D. 1400, for a time complicated the Alliance’s effort to buy the hilly, forested site on which it wants to build a leafy campus nestled in the trees using the latest “green” technologies, including solar and geothermal energy, innovative building techniques, a bike and pedestrian-oriented campus in the woods and the latest digital technologies — both in the classroom and on the campus.
Bosworth in an earlier interview said he suspects that a careful examination of the area around the 11 potential pottery scatters will probably reveal nothing that requires excavations. One site sheltered by a pile of boulders on a ridgeline well away from any construction areas may have served as a camp and may require more extensive excavations, said Bosworth.
Meanwhile, the Tonto National Forest will pay for the cultural study of Native American use of the region, which it will compile from previous studies. The Hopi Tribe asked for that study.
Several Hopi clans say they are linked to people who lived in this region, Camp Verde and Sedona. In the 1300s and 1400s, a still-mysterious series of events prompted those cliff-house building people to abandon the farming communities where they’d lived for 1,000 years.
The announcement this week indicates that the often-delayed effort to build the campus has built up momentum since the Forest Service approved the direct sale, which will allow the Alliance to buy the land based on an independent appraisal rather than bidding against other potential buyers on the open market.
“The direct sale allows us to move forward with finalizing the sales price, “ Drury commented. “Interim financing is being negotiated to close on the land purchase and fund the balance of the pre-development costs.”
Settling the archaeology process and accelerating the land sale by a month will allow the Alliance to draw up detailed plans for the infrastructure needed to build the $500 million campus on a thickly forested piece of land.
University backers have already roughed out the placement of buildings for a 6,000-student campus, which will start with about 1,000 students in 2015. Backers say the developers of the campus have already agreed to pay some $7.5 million in water impact fees to Payson.
The Alliance hasn’t yet consulted with the Northern Gila County Sanitary District about the cost of connecting the campus, the dorms and spin-off businesses like a 500-room conference hotel to the existing sewage treatment system.