The city of Scottsdale continues to carry the financial burden of developing plans of what could be a desert appreciation behemoth known as the Desert Discovery Center at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
Scottsdale City Council Tuesday, June 7 by a 5 to 2 vote approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners, an architectural firm, to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned desert tribute facility.
Scottsdale Vice Mayor Kathy Littlefield and Councilman Guy Phillips voted against the architectural contract.
Swaback Partners is the same architectural firm Scottsdale City Council awarded a design services contract for the first iteration of what the Desert Discovery Center would be. In January 2010, Swaback Partners was awarded a contract of $432,000 for similar design services contract, records show.
The new incarnation of the Discovery Center began in September 2015 when Scottsdale City Council instructed the city treasurer to identify funding sources for the first phase of negotiations between the identified vendor for the facility: Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc.
Last January, Scottsdale City Council approved a measure with three caveats including the budget transfer of $1.69 million in an effort to lay the foundation for an opportunity to construct an interpretive desert appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert.
That measure passed 6 to 1 with only then-Councilwoman Littlefield voting against the measure citing any changes to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve zoning restrictions ought to be voted on by the general public.
The January 2016 resolution, among other things, enables a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center including:
- Allowing the mayor to sign a contract for management services with Desert Discovery Center Services;
- Allowing a General Fund capital contingency budget appropriation for $1,696,900 to the Desert Discovery Center Business Plan and Feasibility Analysis;
- Allowing a Municipal Use Master Site Plan amendment to allow a 30-acre complex at existing Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
In addition, the resolution requires the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Services — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the Desert Discovery Center and to develop a plan to adequately cover annual operating costs that is to be presented to Scottsdale City Council 18 months after the January approval.
Members of Scottsdale City Council who voted for the June 7 architectural services contract say the affirmative vote is in support of the 18-month evaluation period approved in January 2016.
The Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve encompasses 30,000 acres of land within the rough boundaries of the Pima Road alignment to the west, McDowell Mountain Regional Park to the east, Stagecoach Road to the north and Via Linda Road alignment to the south.
Most recently, Scottsdale acquired 2,365 acres of land at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve at a state land auction held in November 2014. The city’s successful bid was $21.3 million —about $8 million of that came from a Growing Smarter State Trust Land Acquisition Grant approved by the Arizona State Parks Board in September of 2014.
An emotional project
Residents, tourism honchos and local power brokers filled Scottsdale City Council chambers to voice opinions — both positive and negative — on the latest incarnation of the Discovery Center.
“We need to have the architect on-board to work with the city and DDCS on what the plan is going to be,” said Scottsdale Public Works Director Dan Worth at the public hearing.
“We are going to be seeking public comment and input on the process over the next year when we will come back with a site-plan proposal. At that time you will decide if we move forward with the next step.”
Public comment was extensive during the hours-long public hearing as about 50 requests to speak were filled as 37 people came to the dais to voice their opinions. About 21 participants spoke out against the location and scope of the Discovery Center while 16 were in support.
During the public comment period a few residents spoke of a telephone poll they say outlined general design specifics for the Discovery Center to garner support for the project heading into the June 7 public hearing.
Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Executive Director Sam Campana steadfastly denies any involvement of the alleged telephone poll campaign.
“We did not do this or any poll,” she said in a June 8 statement.
“We have only done paper surveys at the meetings we have attended. It was stated several times at the hearing last evening that we were the responsible party — but we are not. We had no opportunity to speak or rebut so I hope you include this in your story.”
Councilman Phillips says the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“We got the usual suspects here tonight,” he said. “We have the public who does not want the Preserve exploited and influential people who don’t care with the public thinks.”
Councilman Phillips says he is disappointed there has been no talks about the scope of the new idea behind the Discovery Center.
“I am extremely disappointed in the DDCS not taking any public comment on anything but the preserve itself,” he said. “There has been no discussion of size, scope or what this would consist of.”
Councilman Phillips says he is done giving out public dollars.
“You are more than willing to have the council give you taxpayer money but you don’t want to hear public opinion,” he said. “And, of course Swaback is the architect, what a shock. I think this project is dead in the water and I have no interest in handing out anymore taxpayer money for an unpopular and disingenuous project.”
Councilman David Smith says the vote in the affirmative for design services is one in-tune with the January measure setting an 18-month evaluation period to study the project at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
“You almost have to have a site plan at the locale for that study and a locale was identified on Jan. 11,” he said of the evaluation period vote.
“You can’t do that unless you have someone that has some architectural expertise. It’s not a matter of hiring Swaback they were just the applicant that won the contract.”
Vice Mayor Littlefield says she doesn’t have a problem with the Swaback Partners — she has a problem with building on the Preserve.
“I guess we have to destroy the desert to protect it,” she said.
“The only site that is being considered is the Gateway, that’s it. The DDCS during these open house refused to even have conversations about alternate locations. The solution is very simple — don’t put it there.”
Vice Mayor Littlefield calls into question the absolute resistance to placing the project on a ballot.
“We need to ask for the vote of the citizens,” she said. “What you are showing the council, or at least me, is that you don’t think they would approve it.”
North Valley News Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at 623-445-2774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org