Appreciation venue proponents seek to bring tourism to the Desert EDGE

Here is the proposed site plan for the proposed Desert EDGE development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Submitted graphic)

On Monday, July 31 Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue now envisaged on less than 6 acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, which includes a series of structures coined “pavilions” and has an asking price of $61.2 million.

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has also announced a formal partnership with the Global Drylands Institute at Arizona State University meanwhile the 30-year-old moniker, “The Desert Discovery Center” needs a new identity, proponents say.

The new identity: the Desert EDGE.

The Preserve itself, proponents of the Discovery Center say, is not enough for visitors to appreciate the McDowell Sonoran Preserve while detractors say the proposed facility is nothing more than a pet project for a handful of the community’s elite.

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.

The DDCS proposal calls for 5.34 acres of disturbed land to create 47,586 square feet of facilities and structures within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve surrounding and retro-fitting portions of the maintenance facility structures already there.

The city allowed for a 30-acre study area while hired hands of the DDCS — New York-based Thinc Design and Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners — proposed a series of connected “pavilions” showcasing varying stages of life in the Upper Sonoran Desert.

Furthermore proponents of the project contend the purpose of the development within the Preserve is for folks to truly understand life in the desert, the animals and plant life that exists and how humans can strive as desert landscapes will likely become more and more apart of planet Earth topography.

The issue of how and if a desert-appreciation venue ought to be built within Preserve limits has drawn a line in the political sand for many Scottsdale residents, local gadflies and elected leaders.

North Scottsdale resident Jason Alexander has founded a political action committee to try and force a public vote on the matter meanwhile longtime Preserve advocate Howard Myers has publicly voiced comment to certain aspects of the project.

Scottsdale elected leaders have gone on the record with the Independent saying a public vote on this matter is on the table, but that Scottsdale City Council vote at City Hall has yet to occur.

Scottsdale City Council is expected to hear a formal presentation on the proposed desert-appreciation venue this fall.

Scottsdale residents came out Tuesday, Aug. 1 to a get a first glimpse at the proposed desert-appreciation venue within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A breakdown of discovery

In January 2016 Scottsdale City Council approved a measure with three caveats — including a 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 Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voting against the measure citing any changes to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve zoning restrictions ought to be voted on by the general public.
That resolution, among other things, enabled a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a desert-appreciation venue including:

  • Allowing the mayor to sign a contract for management services with Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale;
  • Allowing a General Fund capital contingency budget appropriation for $1,696,900 to the Desert Discovery Center Business Plan and Feasibility Analysis;
  • A Municipal Use Master Site Plan amendment to allow the exploration of a 30-acre complex at the existing Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

In addition, the resolution requires the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the desert-appreciation venue.

Furthermore, Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based architectural firm, Swaback Partners, June 7 by a 5 to 2 vote to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned facility.

In that vote, Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips joined Councilwoman Littlefield in rejecting the design contract that was an understood caveat of the January 2016 $1.6 million budget appropriation for the DDCS.

Swaback Partners is the same architectural firm Scottsdale City Council awarded a design services contract for the first iteration of what the desert-appreciation venue would be in January 2010 for $432,000, records show.

Beyond the hiring of the architectural firm, the DDCS has tapped New York City-based Thinc Design to create the exhibitions at a rate of $278,840 plus $30,000 in expenses, according to Sam Campana, DDCS executive director.

John Sather of Swaback Partners outlines his approach to the creation of structures within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The publicity tour

Earlier this week Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale hosted community meetings and a formal public open house event Tuesday, Aug. 1 at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St.

Sam Campana

“Based on all of that input you are going to hear things that you will like,” said Ms. Campana at the onset of the DDCS open house. “We do have a new name for our project. We are on the edge of a lot of things. We do present this new vision. We have shrunk this down to less than 6 acres.”

Ms. Campana points out DDCS is not seeking to establish any new taxes and the project is asking a smaller municipal subsidy than originally imagined.

“This is significantly cheaper than what was proposed earlier. We are proposing no new taxes,” she said. “You have a private partner that has demonstrated the ability to raise these kinds of funds.”

According to the published business plan, the entity overseeing the desert-appreciation venue will need to generate about $1.7 million in annual fundraising to keep the entity sufficient.

The annual operating expense of the venue will likely hover around $6.3 million with about $4.6 million or 72 percent of the costs being derived from earned revenue.

“We think that is very doable to make all of this happen,” Ms. Campana said of the annual fundraising goal.

What may happen is the creation of a series of structures meant to illustrate certain elements of living in a desert region.

There are several distinctive experience for patrons to see, which include:

  • The Pod — designers say patrons will experience a 3D projection of all that occurs in the desert complete with aromas of the desert: creosote, sage, camphor, mesquite and lavender.
  • Bajada — this both indoor and outdoor experience will showcase the web of life present in a desert region.
  • Mountains and Valleys — this exhibit will explore the three spheres local Native American populations believe are needed to provide balance in the landscape.
  • Tom’s Thumb — Deep Time — here patrons will be able to discover the desert rising from the seas that once were to the desert landscape that is now present.
  • The Wash — an immerse experience created with LED screens that will visually illustrate the powerful presence of flood washes throughout the desert landscape.
  • Saguaros — Keystone Species — this area will include a sunwatch station marking the annual solstices and listening stations to hear the saguaros actual pulse.
  • City — on the Edge — here the relationship between municipality and nature will be explored and the idea of oasis on the urban age will be realized.

“When we began to listen to a wide range of opinions it caused us to go deeply to answer the question of why this needs to be accomplished?” asked Tom Hennes of Thinc Design during the Aug. 1 open house presentation.

“We were just blown away by the beauty and the complexity of it. What is out there? What can you see? What can’t you see? What are the ecological changes that you cannot see?”

Mr. Hennes says the proposed desert-appreciation venue is meant to help create an “empathy of the organisms” through a series of augmented realities.

All day Tuesday, Aug. 1 residents were able to see all the aspects of the proposed desert-appreciation venue. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

“We are developing an empathy for living in the desert,” he explained.

John Sather of Swaback Partners sung a similar tune of desert appreciation and the idea the concrete to be laid would have both minimal impacts both ecologically and visually.

“I really wasn’t building a building I am building a tool that Tom and his team can use,” he said of the collaboration between the notions of idea and place.

“I was not hired to design a show-stopper building, I was hired to be build a building that respected the location. We began to think of these not as buildings as I used the term during phase 2 of linked ‘pavilions.’”

Mr. Sather contends the proposal includes an element of food and beverage.

“Yes, we will have a food and beverage element, but it will be very small,” he explained. “There is no discussion with the team to sell tourism chachka.”

Duke Reiter, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, says the educational entity is on board with the desert-appreciation venue and the opportunities for hands-on education at the site.

“It is an uncanny convergence — I think our interests are manifest in what can happen here,” he said. “Our research is use-infused. We want what we do to help the community.”

Mr. Reiter contends the newly created Global Drylands Institute would be able to use the desert-appreciation venue as a working lab dedicated to better understanding how humans can thrive in arid regions.

“How attractive that would be to students and faculty,” he said. “What the University does, I think, is making the things invisible — visible. We could be the epicenter of studying this phenomenon. We see ourselves as an engaged partner.”

What has now been coined the Desert EDGE has faced significant community push-back due to perceptions of how lands identified as preserved ought to be treated. A view of City Hall about a year ago. (File photo)

Alexander the great

The No-DDC group Mr. Alexander founded is pursuing nonprofit status and is now a force to be reckoned with, elected leaders, political aficionados and public relations honchos agree.

Jason Alexander

He says the group is expecting to enter into the local political fray as soon as the 2018 municipal elections in Scottsdale.

Mr. Alexander says the proposed event center is exactly what he and his supporters have been speaking out against for nearly a two-year period.

“They did a nip and a tuck, but its the same Tourist Event Center its been for 7 years and three studies. 60 night-time events a year, 5000 feet of retail space including alcohol,” he said in an Aug. 2 statement.

“Told ya so!”

While Mr. Alexander says the shift to site location toward the south was a good tweak, the name change is an effort at deflection — not empathy.

“They are hiding,” he said. “They’ve faced the public once in six months, they posted on social media once since Thanksgiving. Who does that? The city only invited 6,800 households to the feedback sessions, and held them 10 miles away from those invited. South Scottsdale pays taxes too!”

Mr. Alexander says the No-DDC group is opposed to building in the Preserve without a public vote, the usage of the Preserve fund to build the structure and the annual revenue projections.

“Their expectations for earned revenue could be $2 million a year, which are too high even in a good year, as per the comps in their own business plan,” he pointed out.

“They expect first year attendance to surpass the Musical Instrument Museum and Taliesin West combined, and 100,000 more than already come to Gateway. Their contract gives them $700,000 a year from the city for five years, startup costs could be $6 million or more. We need to bond just to finance the construction, or drain the tourism fund.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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