The Forest Service this week approved the direct sale of 260 acres for a university campus, clearing the way for the start of construction later this year.
Tonto National Forest Chief Neil Bosworth pushed through the regional and national office the unusual proposal to sell the land directly to the Rim County Educational Alliance based on independent appraisals rather than competitive bidding. He told the Roundup on Friday morning officials in Washington have approved the direct sale.
“This is huge,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans on Friday morning after receiving news of the direct sale approval. “It is really huge. Suddenly the floodgates have opened and we have these things we knew were going to take place. It’s going from a worry stage to a work stage.”
He estimated that construction will start by October at the earliest and December at the latest.
Tonto National Forest and the Alliance have also agreed to settle outstanding questions about archeological sites by having the Alliance put up a $500,000 bond to guarantee the recovery and preservation of pottery shards, stone tools and possible dwelling foundations found on the site during the environmental assessment. The Forest Service estimates the necessary work will probably cost about $225,000.
Evans said the Alliance has worked out a way to obtain the bond. “We’ve come up with a bonding option that will allow us to say in essence we have a bond to take care of whatever we find. We have multiple ways to get that done” without needing to raise any more money.
The Alliance has already notified Arizona State University of the breakthrough. The Alliance and ASU suspended negotiations several months ago, awaiting a firm, legal commitment from the Forest Service to sell the land. At that point, the Alliance and ASU had agreed on all the major points, including the basic design of the 1,000-student first phase, the facilities needed, the ownership of the student dorms and other complicated questions that consumed months of negotiations.
The approval of the direct sale “is going to hit them cold,” said Evans of the resumption of the negotiation with ASU. “We’re hitting them after many months of saying ‘next Friday, next Friday.’ And now we’re going to call them and say, ‘it happened Friday.’”
Evans said the Alliance has an elaborate schedule prepared for the steps it must complete between now and the fall. That includes lining up the contracts, getting the appraisal, getting the bond, hiring an archeological consultant to complete the survey and possible excavation of the 11 sites where the preliminary survey found pottery shards, signing the final deal with ASU, working out the details of the infrastructure for the site.
“We’ll get on site and do a number of parallel things once we get the SIS (sales implementation strategy) in hand. That triggers a whole series of things so we can actually start the preliminary work so the day the title is handed over to us we can start building. We’ve got a timeline with each step between here and the start of construction.”
Evans said approval of the direct sale and the agreement on how to handle the archeological remains means the Alliance can now sign a legally binding agreement with Arizona State University. It also will give the Alliance the ability to conclude agreements with investors who have pledge some $400 million to build the campus. Private donors have also pledge about $70 million, about half of that contingent on working out the deal with ASU as the university in the project.
Meanwhile, the Payson campus also showed up on a list of potential construction projects issued by the Dodge Report, an information service for contractors. The June 7 report listed a total of $52 million worth of Arizona State University projects, including the campus itself, plus a rural health care building.
The Dodge Report alerts contractors about projects on which they might eventually want to bid. Dodge Report officials did not return phone calls and so did not explain why the report listed the Payson campus project.
ASU spokesperson Julie Newberg said the university isn’t yet seeking bids on the project. “ASU has not put any RFPs or bids out on work for a Payson campus. There have been no active discussions for a number of months while the Payson group works to see if it can complete land acquisition. If they are successful, we will re-engage to see if the financial parameters that we have laid out in the past can be met.”
The Alliance and ASU had reportedly worked out all the major issues late last year before problems arose with the sale of the Forest Service parcel. Backers had to raise about $150,000 to pay for an environmental assessment of the parcel before the Forest Service would consider a direct sale. The only issue raised by the assessment stemmed from the discovery of pottery shards and perhaps other centuries-old remains of settlements.
The approval of the direct sale appears to remove the last major stumbling block in the path of a visionary effort with enormous stakes for both Payson and the Forest Service.
Congress passed a law 12 years ago that would allow the Tonto National Forest to use the estimated $7 million purchase price to build a new ranger station, visitor center and firefighting facilities locally. Normally, money from federal land sales goes into the treasury.
On Payson’s side, studies suggest the university campus at build-out could inject perhaps $150 million annually into the local economy, with the greatest benefits in the winter when business normally slows markedly. With the region’s housing market and retail sales still flat, the years-long wait for the university project has proven agonizing for many.