The end of a four-year tourism strategic plan is near, and ultimately, some residential and commercial growth will be needed to carry Scottsdale’s flagship downtown and Old Town areas into the future, experts say.
Anchored by a multitude of local establishments, store fronts and art galleries, Scottsdale’s downtown area expands 1.3 square miles along Scottsdale Road, between Earll Drive to the south, Chaparral Road to the north, 68th Street to the west and Miller Road to the east.
Hodgepodged together is what local residents and tourists alike have come to love; the downtown area includes Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, art museums, Fashion Square Mall and the Arizona Canal, among many other well-known places.
During a Monday, Nov. 13, study session the city’s elected leaders spent several hours discussing the city’s tourism strategic plan and downtown tourism-related economic feasibility study — also known as Downtown Scottsdale 2.0.
The meeting was held at Scottsdale City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.
In the end, the council steered away from the idea of a revitalization district or beginning to charge for parking; while they supported the ideas of additional wayfinding, lighting and décor, and the inclusion of pocket parks and green space. They also asked for additional information on specifics in population and commercial growth downtown.
While a few star players might come to mind when thinking about the downtown area, there is no single draw to the area, John Kaatz, CSL International principal said during the Nov. 13 meeting.
“All kinds of entities impact downtown, but there’s no one real quarterback to say ‘how do we move downtown forward?’” Mr. Kaatz explained to the city council.
The feasibility study is part of a larger strategic plan focused on tourism, which was adopted by city council in 2013. The feasibility study includes the Downtown Scottsdale 2.0 study, branding and advertising the downtown area and enhancements that have already begun.
Downtown Scottsdale’s new brand is expected to be presented in early 2018.
In addition, Holly Street Studio Architects is developing a public space master plan for Downtown Scottsdale with the goal of improving, developing and maintaining the residents’ and visitors’ quality of life.
On Oct. 20, the final tourism related downtown economic feasibility study was released, outlining investment concepts tied to enhancing hospitality and commercial density, building on the downtown arts and culture brand and enhancing the resident and visitor experience.
The 100-page report explores destination improvement, growth and transformation; and the recommendation to create a nonprofit downtown organization with funding approaches.
The proposed nonprofit group would be responsible for coordinating downtown maintenance, support, fundraising and marketing, among other things, Tourism and Events Director Karen Churchard explained.
During the November study session, the Scottsdale City Council was asked to evaluate four recommendations coming out of the study:
- Include short-term projects and related administrative costs in operating budget process;
- Develop a process to prioritize 2.0 recommendations;
- Solicit private interest in development of a conference center;
- Explore recommended management structure and each suggested funding mechanism via research, public education and input.
“When you start looking at downtown Scottsdale, it’s 1.3 square miles, it is a big downtown and incredibly diverse,” Mr. Katz said. “We came to the conclusion fairly quickly that we could sustain increases in those areas without harming the brand of the destination — it will evolve a little bit.”
Mr. Kaatz says that “24-7” feeling is sought for visitors in a new destination.
“If you go to a destination you want to see that kind of activity,” he said. “That’s active and energetic. I can’t give you that by saying ‘turn up the dial on visitors.’”
Keeping Scottsdale’s cache
Scottsdale City Council gave city staff direction on the four recommendations, as well as a number of suggestions.
The council collectively gave their proverbial head nod to ideas such as including short-term project costs in operating budget process, including wayfinding and décor, temporary art installations and the Canal Convergence event.
Council directed staff to incorporate a master plan for connectivity and walkability in the downtown plan; develop a process to prioritize the 2.0 recommendations; research the viability of a conference center from a private market basis; and explore a recommended management structure.
The council excluded the idea of forming a revitalization district.
Suggested ideas from the city council included improving parking management program as a solution rather than as a funding mechanism; utilizing Drinkwater Boulevard to assist in walkability and connectivity; adding pocket parks, community center, lighting, signage and restrooms; upgrade and restore water features on Civic Center Mall; and study the city’s overall sales tax program.
“Our downtown area is in a sense a living museum, and I don’t say that in any old and tired way, it is a collection of interesting places for people to visit. It always has been,” Councilman David Smith said at the study session.
“As a collection of properties, it’s one of the most visited places in the city. It’s most often what someone does when they come here. The problem I want to see us try to solve is how to enhance that cache, that living museum, that visitation.”
Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield first outlined a number of her concerns, before returning to the microphone later to state there are a number of items she likes about the study and didn’t want to appear negative.
“I have many of the same concerns that Councilman Smith has — I want to ensure that we maintain and keep our very unique downtown for Scottsdale, and that we offer an authentic experience that’s Scottsdale’s, not anyone else’s,” she explained.
“I’d like to consider activities, places and events that puts our downtown in a unique Scottsdale places and purpose, and that people come here specifically to see and to experience.”
Councilwoman Virginia Korte says she believes walkability in downtown is critical for the city.
“I think it’s critical for that walkability, you start walking through downtown Scottsdale and suddenly the sidewalk ends, the pavements broken, it conflicts with traffic and it just really needs some work,” he said.
Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp stated that she wasn’t interested in looking into private sector interest to construct a hotel with conference space, and would prefer to do an assessment on current space in downtown.
“I think we need to do a real assessment of conference room space in the downtown area as well as any potential hotels coming, what kinds of conference space they’re going to provide,” councilwoman Klapp said. “To me it’s a little premature. It’s a radical step at this point to be asking private developers to tell us if they have an interest of building a hotel with conference space.”
While Mayor Jim Lane also said he wasn’t interested in exploring the hotel conference center idea, Ms. Korte brought up the idea of keeping the recommendation alive.
“I’m wondering if there’s some way to keep this kind of living recommendation but perhaps changing it a little bit. I do know, having been involved in economic development downtown, a conference center has been talked about for downtown Scottsdale for 20 years,” she said.
“I would like to keep this alive some way because I think it’s a good time to talk about it and put some focus perhaps without an RFI or RFP.”
Councilwoman Linda Milhaven said she shared some of the same concerns and reservations as her colleagues, but saw a reason to pursue the idea of the conference center.
“It’s interesting to me, however, this council supports WestWorld as an events venue, and is willing to subsidize an events venue at WestWorld to support tourism, and yet is willing to dismiss out of hand the thought of a convention center bringing people to our downtown,” Ms. Milhaven said. “I’m frankly surprised we come to two different conclusions on two similar projects. I’d like to pursue this conversation and see where it takes us.”
Councilwomen Korte and Milhaven both gave voice to the $9 million shot-in-the-arm downtown Scottsdale recently received from the municipality as a catch-up for years of underfunding.
“We put $9 million into downtown and we don’t have another $9 million to put into downtown next year,” Ms. Korte said. “One councilmember said there’s momentum happening — well it’s not showing up in tax revenue and it’s not showing up in sales. Downtown is stagnated and we need to do something about that.”
Councilman Guy Phillips said he doesn’t support the idea of a nonprofit management entity, and believes that type of group should be managed at the citizen level.
“I’d love to see all the businesses get together and say we’re going to take control of downtown, it’s our downtown, it’s our businesses, it’s our future,” he said. “But I don’t think the city should get involved in that. We’ll do the city structure, you do the private structure.”
City Manager Jim Thompson said at the end of the meeting that further discussions will be held during the budget process, and initial planning will begin.
“I don’t want to close the door on anything because I think we’re going to have to get innovative, look at that future and how best we can provide,” he said. “There are some things in there that might be great in downtown, and some things that might not be great for downtown.
Residential supports commercial
For three hours members of the downtown community, city staff and city council discussed the tourism feasibility study.
The study includes an economic and planning analysis of the city’s downtown area, focusing on maximizing economic performance and enhancing a desirable, vibrant downtown, according to the city’s website.
In December 2016, CSL International led two open houses for local stakeholders to voice their opinions about the research, concepts and ideas. A number of stakeholders within the Scottsdale area have submitted feedback, including: the 5th Avenue Merchants Association, Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors and the Scottsdale Gallery Association.
“Creating this platform of researching and insight allows us to start dipping our toe into what we think might make sense in terms of investment to support the visitor industry,” Mr. Kaatz explained. “Economic development is kind of a three-legged stooled — we love tourists, we can’t do it without one leg.”
The firm’s recommendations include reaching more tourists, employers and residents; in addition to providing a number of ideas to begin immediately attracting people like festivals, art paths, more green space and pocket parks.
“We know there’s a little over 4,000 residents today and with projects already under construction probably 6,100 residents by 2020,” he said.
Mr. Kaatz said 8,200 residents would be an appropriate target, and that Maricopa Association of Governments has projected there to be 11,000 downtown Scottsdale residents by 2040. A strong population will support restaurants, entertainment and retail, he explained.
“They’re creating a unique, real destination as oppose to something that’s manufactured,” he said. “Given the trajectory of where we’re at with development, we think we can enhance that to 10,000 in 2030.”
Compared to the amount of restaurants in the area, downtown is underpopulated, he says, noting research shows the city has started to create a “real destination.”
“Visitors are drawn to that unique and authentic neighborhood experience, there is a Scottsdale mystique — there is a quality level that has to be maintained,” he said.
Challenges found from the study include fewer customers/visitors, diminishing arts brand, lack of “high-end” walking experience, disconnect from Fashion Square Mall, lack of large outdoor spaces, no dedicated visitor transportation option, disagreement on special events, parking, lack of residential population and lack of large parcels ripe for development.
Strengths included having a world class destination brand, galleries and unique retail, Scottsdale Arts, diverse hospitality assets and districts, developing canal and entertainment district areas, Fashion Square Mall, landscape, and an emerging food and wine presence.
“A good investment is pocket parks — there are 10-12 spaces in the downtown area,” he said. “Seating, shade, music, wayfinding, a bike-share element to it. It’s not big investments but can be very impactful. If you’re asking a visitor to literally walk from Fashion Square Mall to Main Street, that’s a tough walk and not as inviting as it could be.”
Find more information on Downtown Scottsdale’s studies at http://www.scottsdaleaz.gov/downtown.