The Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) board hopes to pick a site for a university at a scheduled Sept. 18 meeting, said board chairman Steve Drury.
Drury said he hopes the board’s action on Sept. 18 will allow backers to break ground on the first phase of a 6,000-student campus next summer.
Tonto National Forest this week received the independent appraisal it needs to set the price of a 253-acre site the Alliance has been trying to buy for the past three years. The Forest Service has told the Alliance it will need a month to review the appraisal before giving a copy to the Alliance.
In the meantime, Tetra Tech has mostly finished a contracted infrastructure cost analysis of four potential sites for the proposed university and related facilities. Drury said the Alliance will release the results of the analysis on Sept. 18, but the preliminary numbers show big differences between the cost of developing the four sites. Questions remain about the full cost of providing electricity and water to each site, but those questions should be resolved by Sept. 18, Drury said.
The four sites still in the running include the Forest Service site near the Payson Ranger District, a much smaller parcel on the opposite side of the highway next to Gila Community College, a large parcel currently occupied by the Payson Golf Course and a chunk of land on the corner of Highway 87 and Tyler Parkway.
Drury said once Arizona State University officials get a chance to look at the development cost estimates and express a site preference, the Alliance can move quickly to buy the land and finalize a contract with a developer.
It would likely take an additional six months to actually buy the land from the Forest Service, which would include the time required to do an estimated $250,000 worth of archaeological work to excavate the area where a survey found pottery shards. It would probably take only about two months to buy any of the private parcels, said Drury.
Once ASU and the Alliance pick a site, it will take about four months to do final engineering work and another few months to get all the building and grading permits, said Drury. Construction could likely start late next summer.
“We’ll obviously need comments from ASU, since they’re the ones who would ultimately pay the bill,” said Drury. “I want very much to have their input and for the board to understand their input. As far as I’m concerned, as soon as ASU has made its pronouncement, we’re ready to vote.”
The current preliminary agreement requires the Alliance to build the first phase of the campus for 1,000 to 1,500 students and guarantee to cover losses of up to $10 million. ASU would build the subsequent phases.
The Forest Service site will likely have the highest development costs and involve the greatest delays, given the laborious process of preparing title transfer and dealing with the archaeological concerns, said Drury. However, buying the Forest Service site would bring into the town’s economic base a big chunk of land and offer plenty of room for spinoff developments, like a research park and a conference hotel. If the Alliance decides not to buy the Forest Service site, the property would likely remain undeveloped. Moreover, the Payson Ranger District wouldn’t get the millions of dollars it had hoped it could use to revamp its visitor and firefighting facilities.
The proposed site now occupied by the Payson Golf Course would likely have the lowest development costs, since it’s flat and has things like sewer, water and electricity readily available. The site would require some major road improvements, like an overhaul of McLane or an extension of Green Valley Parkway. The site would also require some substantial flood control work, since the American Gulch runs through the property. However, the developer in that case has also expressed an interest in a major commercial project at one end of Main Street, said Drury — Payson’s key economic development goal for decades.
The site next to GCC has enough room for a 6,000-student campus, but not for many of the spinoff facilities important to the financial viability of the project. However, that site offers intriguing possibilities when it comes to dovetailing programs at the community college and the university. ASU in the past has worked closely with community colleges near its existing campuses to make it easy for students to take two years of classes at the community college then finish at the university. The Alliance could move quickly to build phase one of the university on that site and probably coordinate with the community college to wind up with facilities that would greatly enhance the community college.
The Tyler Parkway site offers easy access to infrastructure, but land costs are high and the space is tight, said Drury. Since it fronts Highway 87, the site would likely present fewer problems with access.
Drury said he expects the Alliance board in consultation with ASU to decide on a site in September and then move forward as quickly as possible with construction.
Once the board and ASU decide on where to build the campus, the Alliance can finalize a development agreement with dck worldwide, a major development firm that also wants to build an 80-acre industrial park in Granite Dells. Drury said the board and the developer have already come to an agreement on most of the key elements of a contract. The developer would potentially front several million dollars to do all the site planning, architecture and engineering. That would allow the Alliance to put off borrowing money to build the campus until it’s ready to start construction.
Drury said ASU has already provided detailed plans to build a campus in stages, modeled after ASU’s East Valley technical campus. The ASU plan details the buildings and square footage needed for the first 1,000 students. Architects hired by the Alliance would then adapt those basic requirements to whichever site ASU prefers, said Drury.
The contrasting development costs could play a significant role in the site selection, based on ASU’s financial calculations, said Drury.
The marketing plan for the university leans heavily on the idea that the Payson campus could either charge a much lower tuition than ASU’s campuses in the Valley or provide an endowed scholarship fund that would offset tuition. This could attract students to a small town. In addition, the plan calls for using money from things like a convention hotel and a research park to help reduce the costs to ASU. That means the plan requires both the lowest cost possible — and enough land for assorted spinoff endeavors.
“ASU hasn’t seen the final numbers yet,” said Drury. “I know darn good and well (ASU Vice President) Rich Stanley has a number in his mind as to what they can pay in lease costs. He has to have. I have never in my life gone into a deal without knowing how I have to come out. Stanley is the same way. This guy is very, very bright. If we hit the wrong number he’s going to walk away — and well he should.”
However, Drury said the appraisal and the study of all the development costs has finally removed most of the haunting unknowns that have repeatedly forced long delays in the project timeline.
He said he’s sure now that the project will go forward — on one of the four sites. “When all you were dealing with was the Forest Service, then nothing is a given. You don’t know how much you’re going to wind up spending.”
But now, most of the pieces of the puzzle have been assembled — with a developer and the financing in place and ASU deeply involved in the plan.
“We’ve got some actual facts here. We can deal with that. Hey, that’s a refreshing concept,” said Drury.