Ask any pair of travelers: sometimes the hardest part of a journey is agreeing on the best way to get there. The destination may be a given. The chosen path, however, is not.
And so it is with the Desert Discovery Center. I believe we can all agree that the destination — the McDowell Sonoran Preserve — is a Scottsdale point of pride. That it deserves to be cherished. And, that it should be shared with everyone — young, old, disabled, able-bodied, residents, tourists, and anyone else who is interested in reveling in this one-of-a-kind place.
When the Preserve was created more than two decades ago, the Desert Discovery Center, as an interpretive education center was part of the vision, located at the edge of the Preserve, on land intended for improvements.
Scottsdale’s hospitality industry, which stepped up when others were prepared to oppose the tax to buy the Preserve, enthusiastically supported this vision, specifically including the Desert Discovery Center as a way for their guests (and our residents) to enjoy and understand our unique Sonoran Desert environment.
In fact, today, most current Preserve users live in nearby neighborhoods. Tourism industry leaders have said time and again that a center that delights our residents will delight our visitors, as well.
The intention was not to harm the asset Scottsdale citizens and visitors purchased with the designated Preserve sales tax dollars. Rather, it was to harness a little bit of its magic and to share those mysteries known to those of us who live in and love on the desert. As the world has changed, the vision has improved.
We now have an opportunity to share our knowledge of what it’s like to live in and adapt to an arid environment. This has global research implications as much of the world is becoming hotter and drier – much like Scottsdale.
The project has been studied at various points throughout its 20-plus-year history. In January 2016, the city of Scottsdale hired Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, a nonprofit group, to define the visitor experience, develop a business plan, explore private fundraising potential and return to the city council in the fall of 2017 with a new concept. The effort is being funded by designated bed tax dollars — money paid by visitors who stay at Scottsdale’s resorts and hotels — not by Scottsdale taxpayers. The selection of both DDCS and the architect was done through normal, competitive, open City processes.
This summer, the city awarded an architectural contract to Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners to determine what the facility will look like, what size it will be and how much it will cost. Critics might have you believe these factors have already been decided based on a 2010 concept. This is simply not true. What is true is that there was a lot of good thought and input that went into that plan and elements of it may weigh into the new plan.
But what we will see take shape this fall will be quite different from what we saw six years ago.
Swaback Partners is an award-winning architecture firm that has been involved with the Preserve and the project for many years. We are in good hands with John Sather, a Swaback partner and also a Frank Lloyd Wright-trained architect. Swaback Partners remains a strategic and well-suited match for the newly selected experience designer, Thinc Design.
Thinc Design joined the team this summer after DDCS reached out to 33 exhibit designers. Seventeen firms responded and five earned interviews. DDCS chose New York City-based Thinc Design because of its sustainability ethic and expertise in community conscientiousness. The firm is most well-known for designing the National 9/11 Memorial Museum, an effort that incorporated thousands of passionate — and often disparate — opinions.
We now have a team that involves the very best minds, locally and internationally to design the Desert Discovery Center from the inside and outside. The team kicked off in August with an intensive week of discovery, talking to numerous potential partnership groups and organizations, as well as DDCS’ educational and research partner, Arizona State University. Anyone involved in that week couldn’t help but feel the energy as we began to dream about what the Desert Discovery Center can become.
In addition to hiring the experience designer, DDCS also has been busy fulfilling the city’s requirement to assess the interest of the private sector in helping fund the Desert Discovery Center and to develop a plan to adequately cover annual operating costs.
The majority of public-sector money is expected to be provided by the bed tax, which (along with private-sector funding) has funded the majority of the work to-date, as opposed to being funded by Scottsdale taxpayers. Over the past three years, we have raised almost a half-million dollars from the private sector to advance the DDC — a valid indicator of future fundraising success. Behind these private sector donations are individuals, corporations, foundations and volunteers who care deeply about Scottsdale.
The individuals leading this private sector effort of the public/private partnership are — to the person — significant community and conservation leaders. Almost all have, individually, for more than 20 years, each volunteered time, leadership and/or significant resources to the acquisition of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Many remain as unpaid volunteers.
In short, we believe, just as passionately as DDC critics, that the Preserve is a treasure that should be treated with care. We are proud to be considered a partner with the city of Scottsdale, which has in a myriad of ways demonstrated its leadership and commitment to preservation, conservation and the environment. The city staff members we work with almost daily are inspired and inspiring and motivated and motivational.
Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, DDCS has been actively fulfilling its contractual commitment to gather input from Scottsdale citizens on both sides of the issue that will be invaluable to the experts who are crafting the project proposal that will be presented next year. We have met with hundreds of individuals who have strong opinions, both for and against, the DDC. Not only have we talked, we have listened.
We heard and understand the preference for less space, less expense and less intrusion than previous concepts have proposed. These interests and others are being synthesized by our consultants and will be represented in the plans that will begin to emerge this fall.
Some citizens have called for the issue to go to a public vote. That is a decision left to our city leaders. In the meantime, DDCS’ responsibility is to complete the job it was hired to do: bring forward a plan that is worthy of a place we all agree deserves our very best.
I’m confident we will find our way together — perhaps on a path “less traveled by” — one of outreach, collaboration and inclusion. The DDC is the most studied, most reviewed, most scrutinized, most visible, most transparent project in the history of Scottsdale. I can’t wait to see what this team brings forward as a concept and I have no doubt it will lead to a project that will become a Scottsdale point of pride for generations to come.
Editor’s note: Ms. Campana is executive director of Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale