The Maricopa Community College District is racing to buy property for three future college sites in the West Valley as land prices continue to boom.
If the district can't buy by the end of the year, officials say they will have to re-strategize. That means buying smaller lots or campuses farther away from the people they aim to serve.
In the next five years, student enrollment is expected to climb 43 percent, to 400,000 students, much of that growth in the West Valley.
But that growth has also sparked residential developers to bid up land to record prices in the nation's top home building market, a problem facing community colleges in other hot markets such as Las Vegas and San Diego.
Prices in the West Valley, as well as the rest of the county, have jumped anywhere from 33 to 100 percent in the past year, according to Greg Vogel, owner of Arizona Land Advisors, one of the largest land brokers in the Valley. And unlike Arizona's K-12 districts, community colleges are unable to encourage land donations with a state law that promises 30 percent tax breaks.
Brokers with Arizona Land Advisors, scouting land for the district, said they expect to secure land in Laveen, the Buckeye area and Surprise in the next 60 days.
College growth plans
Officials want enough land, ideally 100 to 120 acres, for full-service campuses with academic and athletic facilities. The campuses, at least initially, would serve as satellite sites for Glendale, Estrella Mountain and South Mountain community colleges.
Those three campuses follow the district's philosophy to establish some presence about every 12 miles, or in a 6-mile radius around a college site. Sometimes that is a full-fledged campus. Sometimes it is classes at a rented facility or smaller district-owned center.
In general, a population of 250,000 in a service area is the catapult for planning a start-up campus, said Arlen Solochek, the district's director for facilities planning and development.
The Valley's growth challenges that view.
"We cannot keep up with our student growth. We cannot float a bond big enough for the building we need," Solochek said.
Still, the Valley grows. District officials project another 120,000 students in the next five years.
A slew of projects to build up the current campuses is unfolding, and officials are negotiating the purchase of several smaller sites, which include:
• $15 million for a building in downtown Phoenix. A potential partnership with Arizona State University is being negotiated.
• $10 million for buildings in downtown Mesa in partnership with the city.
• $4 million for a building in Ahwatukee, or if negotiations to lease land pan out with the Gila River Community, to build a larger building on the reservation.
But, despite the buildup Valley-wide, officials predict that Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, once open cotton fields to the West, will be the geographical center of the district in 20 years.
Budgeting for land
The district typically asks voters for bond money every 10 years. In one decade it buys land. In the next decade, it develops it.
That's the plan in the West Valley and Laveen. Buy now. Develop down the road.
All 10 of the district's colleges grew during the past decade, but Estrella Mountain tripled the number of students and projects to grow an additional 160 percent by 2015.
Those numbers, combined with the West Valley's growth potential because of open land, have captured the district's attention.
"Where is the big future growth going to be that we're not (located)? It's the west, beyond deniability," Solochek said.
In hindsight, Solochek said the district should have been there 10 years ago, although in 1994 it was buying land for a northern campus of Paradise Valley Community College which is now being developed.
"Laveen and the southwest Valley took a lot of people by surprise," Solochek said.
Vogel admits that the district's search for land is challenging in today's white-hot market. "If we all could have looked forward with a crystal ball, we all would have tried to complete these things earlier," Vogel said and added, "We are where we are."
Where they are is holding $19 million to buy all three sites. The money is part of a $951 million bond issue that 76 percent of voters approved last fall.
District officials expected land in the more-developed Laveen to come in highest. They may still come up short if the McClellan Ranch, sold last month at auction, is any indicator. The 158-acre Laveen ranch sold to developers in two parcels for about $150,000 an acre.
"Nuts" is how John Weaver, owner of Southwest Real Estate Auctioneers, described the growth of once sleepy Laveen.
Weaver, who handled the auction of the McClellan Ranch, said it set a new high for land in Laveen.
If true, district officials could spend nearly all their cash in Laveen if they purchased a full 120 acres.
Lane Neville, a broker with Arizona Land Advisors, said that the district will still be able to buy land in Laveen. "It's a question of how much land."
The West Valley offers some consolation: One can go further west.
"East LA Junior College," Solochek quipped.
At least one Valley organization questions the district's logic in buying land at top dollar. The Arizona Tax Research Association opposed last year's bond issue. "Maybe if it's expensive to put a community college on every corner, we shouldn't do that," President Kevin McCarthy said.
McCarthy would rather see the district develop the sites it already owns.
How other cities cope
More students are signing up for classes at community colleges around the country, but hot spots like the Valley and Las Vegas feel greater pressure because of surges in population.
Nevada's Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers said about 15 years ago, 15,000 students attended the Community College of Southern Nevada. Today's enrollment tops 35,000 and students are being turned away, he said.
Nevada officials got creative, lobbying Congress for special legislation to acquire federal land from the Bureau of Land Management at no cost.
The system received nearly 700 acres of BLM land in 2002 and seeks an additional 1,200 acres in north Las Vegas to house a four-year state university campus, a community college branch and other academic sites, Rogers said.
That type of special legislation hasn't occurred in Arizona, which has BLM land stretched across 12.2 million surface acres and scattered around the Valley.
Nevada's situation is unique because so much of the land is federally owned, said Deborah Stevens, a spokeswoman with Arizona's BLM field office.
Solochek said BLM land has not been on the district's radar because it's not in the necessary locations.
Another creative way to acquire land comes out of California, where the issue isn't rampant student growth but a tight real estate market that causes prices to boom.
The San Diego Community College District has used eminent domain to gain a competitive edge in the market. The power allows government to acquire property deemed necessary to the public interest. District spokesman Barry Garron said it isn't used so much to force residents from their homes as to offer a tax break.
Under eminent domain, a California seller's property taxes are frozen at the current rate, even when the seller buys more expensive property.
Still, there is little way around California's exorbitant real estate market. The district recently paid $1.5 million an acre for 8 acres. Officials now weigh expansion at the downtown San Diego City College, where a 60,000-square-foot city block can sell for $18 million, according to Garron.
"$150,000 an acre sounds pretty good here," he said.
Officials expect to sign a deal on land in Buckeye first. There, the hunt has narrowed to one site, which is under negotiation.
In Surprise, the city's economic development director, John Hagen, is encouraging developers to make at least a partial donation to the college. Education institutions create "community wholeness," rather than a city of subdivisions, he said.
Hagen hopes the district can buy land with enough money left to start development of the campus now, rather than in the next bond cycle.
The city of nearly 100,000 people is on track to close the year with 7,000 new homes. If projections pan out, the city will boast 250,000 people in 2020 and double that in another decade or two.