The Rim Country Educational Alliance has hired the Tetra Tech engineering firm to provide a detailed analysis of four possible university sites, including the preferred 253-acre Forest Service-owned parcel on which the Alliance will get an appraisal in the next few weeks.
The preliminary work by the project architect revealed that only about 22 percent of the Forest Service site is flat enough to build on without substantial grading. This prompted the Alliance to enter into a $20,000 contract with Tetra Tech to take one more look at the alternatives, including a rough estimate of infrastructure costs.
Alliance Chairman Steve Drury said he didn’t think it would delay the project to shift sites even at this late date. The Alliance is in final negotiations with a new primary developer, who would front an estimated $2.5 million in pre-development costs. The Alliance also has detailed specifications from Arizona State University on the square footage of the buildings and dormitories and other facilities needed for the 1,000-1,500 student phase one of the 6,000-student campus.
The negotiations with a developer represent a major step forward, since the original proposed developer — the Winners Group — dropped out about a year ago.
The three alternative sites include about 23 acres of land between Gila Community College fronting Tyler Parkway, the land now occupied by a golf course at the end of Main Street, and about 75 acres on the Beeline and also fronting Tyler Parkway.
“We were shocked to find it’s only 22 percent — not 50 percent — buildable,” said Drury.
The effort to again evaluate alternative sites comes just weeks before the Alliance seemed likely to wind up the years-long process of buying 253 acres next to the Payson Ranger Station that Congress earmarked for sale more than a decade ago.
The Forest Service required the Alliance to pay for a $140,000 environmental assessment of the property, which delayed the project for about a year, but revealed no significant issues except for a handful of sites with 600-year-old pottery fragments.
If the Alliance completes the purchase of that site, it will likely have spent up to $230,000 excavating the areas around the pottery scatters.
The effort to win approval of a direct sale of the property delayed the project for another six months. Getting the Forest Service to write the rules for the appraisal took another eight months and the appraisal itself about four months, although an appraisal would normally take about a month.
The appraisal is due on Aug. 18, about the same time Tetra Tech promised to finish its estimates. However, the Forest Service plans to have several other forest officials review the appraisal.
News of that additional level of review prompted the Alliance to postpone an August board meeting until sometime in September.
If the Alliance shifts to a different site with more buildable land it would represent a blow for the Tonto National Forest, which hoped to use the money from the land sale to rebuild crowded and outdated Payson Ranger District facilities, including the staging area for firefighters in the region. Congress passed legislation that would allow the Tonto National Forest to keep money from the sale instead of turning it over to the treasury. Few private developers could afford the upfront costs and long delays imposed by the Forest Service process. The Alliance has invested nearly $1 million in the site already.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has long been a prime advocate for the Forest Service site, but said he welcomed the evaluation of alternative sites. He said the Alliance board had a financial responsibility to evaluate the pros and cons of any possible site and to consider all the building and infrastructure costs.
Evans’ vision of the campus revolved around the hilly, forested terrain and the desire to create a unique, forested campus with multi-story dorms and classrooms connected by bike paths and trails, with the presence of cars and parking minimized. But he said the Alliance board must make the decision based on many factors, in consultation with ASU.
Drury said the relative costs of developing the sites remains crucial.
“ASU made it clear they would prefer the least expensive site possible,” said Drury.
The Alliance would build phase one of the campus and give ASU essentially rent-free facilities for the first three years. The Alliance would also provide a $10 million fund from donations to ensure ASU will at least break-even on operating a campus to accommodate the first 1,340 students.
The Alliance hopes to also develop a commercial area, dorms, a conference hotel, a research park and other spin-off facilities to offset the costs of developing subsequent phases of the campus, Drury said. However, ASU would ultimately take on the cost of building out the campus, which gives the university a strong interest in the costs of building on a particular site.
Drury said the ultimate infrastructure costs for the hilly Forest Service site could total $25 million for grading, streets and water lines. The Tetra Tech study should provide detailed estimates for each of the four sites, allowing the Alliance to prepare a development spreadsheet before deciding whether to buy the Forest Service land.
Drury said each of the four sites has advantages and disadvantages, making the decision a complex juggling act.
The golf course site is flat and probably more than 90 percent buildable, he said. The developers have also expressed an interest in acquiring a chunk of Main Street and undertaking a commercial project, which would potentially contribute to Payson’s years-long effort to develop a viable, pedestrian shopping area along Main Street. However, the site has potentially serious problems in dealing with drainage, since much of it lies in a federally designated flood plain of the American Gulch. The site would require involvement and approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The site would also require substantial off-site street work, perhaps completing Green Valley Parkway or McLane Road to the casino light at Highway 87.
However, Drury noted that solving that drainage problem could actually play into Payson’s effort to further develop a water recharge project using water from the Blue Ridge pipeline.
Drury said the developers could potentially create a long, narrow lake that would provide an amenity and also let untreated Blue Ridge water soak into the water table.
The parcel north of the highway adjacent to Gila Community College is small, but has other advantages. The initial chunk of land is already owned by Payson and Gila County, so the project could move forward quickly. The site is cramped and doesn’t have room for all the hoped-for spin-off businesses. However, the site sits right next to Gila Community College, which would provide advantages in meshing the degree programs for the two-year college and the four-year university.
The other Tyler Parkway parcel represents one of the last large, privately owned parcels in town. Some of the landowners have so far set unrealistic prices, said Drury, which makes the site less attractive.