The community of Scottsdale enthralled by Desert Discovery Center concerns

A scenic view of of the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (

A scenic view of of the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File photo)

Scottsdale City Council Monday, Sept. 19 will evaluate the potential for a ballot measure, the possibility of a Charter amendment and if and when a citizen petition will be acted upon regarding any kind of construction at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The proposal of a desert-appreciation venue coined — the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center — has become the focal point of local politics with citizen factions now fully sprung on both sides of the issue.

Scottsdale City Council 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19 is hosting a work session discussion at City Hall spurred by a citizen petition that requests any municipal action within the Preserve and the usage of preserve funds become a matter of public vote.

Specifically, the city council will consider and provide possible staff direction to two items:

  • The construction of anything in the Preserve other than trails, minimal facilities required for trail heads used for trail access, and the land bridge over Dynamite Boulevard only occur with a public vote;
  • The usage of preserve tax funds for anything other than land acquisition, the building of trails, minimal facilities required for trail heads used for trail access, and the land bridge over Dynamite Boulevard only occur with a public vote.

Proponents of the petition signed by more than 450 Scottsdale residents seeks to see that idea embolden in city ordinance or sent to the voters as a Charter amendment.

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 of a handful of the community’s elite.

Mystery surrounds the latest concept of the Discovery Center as no representative of the city or the nonprofit now charged with creating it can say how big and what true function the facility will provide in the Preserve.

But they do say that a “critical mass” has to be established to primarily make the operations of the facility sustainable and to lure serious educational partnerships and corporate sponsorships.

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.

A view of the Gateway to the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale. (Photo credit: Chris Brown)

A view of the Gateway to the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale. (Photo credit: Chris Brown)

How we got here

Scottsdale City Council last January 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 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, 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.

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 $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 Discovery Center 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 that will be housed by the sought after Discovery Center at a rate of $278,840 plus $30,000 in expenses, according to Sam Campana, DDCS executive director.

‘A critical mass’

While what the Discovery Center will eventually be has become widely debated locally, Tom Hennes, principal at Thinc Design, is now charged with developing what pitch the DDCS will eventually make to Scottsdale City Council next summer.

Tom Hennes

Tom Hennes

“To visualize different seasons and to also visualize how people live around this place,” said Mr. Hennes in an Aug. 24 phone interview of what the overarching goal of the facility could be.

“It is a certainly an entry to the Preserve but it is also much more than that, it is an interpretive center.”

Mr. Hennes contends he and no one on his team knows exactly what the size and scope of the Discovery Center will be.

“We don’t know how many exhibits, but we know that there will be different forms of exhibits,” he said. “We know that some of them will be multimedia exhibits. We know that it will be some kind of interactivity and an engaging of exploration.”

The vision expressed by Mr. Hennes for the Discovery Center is going to be one of global significance, he says.

“Of course the size of it makes a difference in what you can do there,” he pointed out.

“I think the most important thing is to first of all understand that it is really important to build here. I think it is premature to say how big it should be. We know that below a critical mass certain things to do would be very difficult — I can’t put a number to it, we still need to figure that out.”

Mr. Hennes says in three to four months a final recommendation will come to DDCS executives and that would include the scope and scale of planned exhibitions.

“This is not totally different from what we have done in the past,” he said of the fluid state of development. “By the time we are really into the design phase we will have made some recommendations on scale.”

The Discovery Center remains a work in progress, Mr. Hennes contends.

“I am not trying to be evasive at all. I can’t speak to the size,” he explained. “We have an acute interest in doing something that fits into the landscape and to be something that is subtle. The DDC does not have any interest in a grand spectacle.”

Ms. Campana, executive director of the DDCS, says by early 2017 formal designs should be in the hands of DDC proponents with a final report and business plan expected at Scottsdale City Council in July of next year.

Sam Campana

Sam Campana

“We are thrilled to have the quality of Thinc Design on board,” she said of the New York-based design entity in an Aug. 31 phone interview.

“They were here for a full week. They had meetings with ASU for a day and a half. They met with the mayor. We met at the Museum of the West and we met with both the chamber and (Convention and Visitor’s Bureau) officials to help them understand what is already here.”

Ms. Campana says sometime in September Thinc Design will present to the DDCS its focus for planned exhibitions.

“In late September they will come to make another presentation on what they are focusing on,” she said. “They will probably come again in October, November and February — that’s why it’s so frustrating to me, the neighbors and to everyone involved.”

Ms. Campana says the DDCS is taking a genuine interest in trying to create a world class facility that fits in with the community of Scottsdale.

“That is what we are setting out to discover, I wish I could answer that for you,” she said in response to being asked what the scale and scope of the facility will likely be.

“There is not enough there (the Gateway trailhead) for the tourism industry. There is not enough critical mass to make that happen. I think the Museum of the West is a tourism amenity, it is a driver. We have to find the razor’s edge of this being the very best project.”

Resident vs. resident

Scottsdale residents Howard Myers and Jason Alexander have spearheaded two community groups complete with websites, Facebook Fan Pages and newsletters.

Howard Myers

Howard Myers

It’s Mr. Myers’ citizen petition that has Scottsdale City Council set to consider new provisions to allow any kind of construction at the Preserve, city leaders say.

“It is very simple: the petition ensures that the public has a vote in what happens in the Preserve,” he said in a Sept. 6 phone interview. “Anything or anytime someone would want to build something in the Preserve there would have to be a public vote. And, any use of preserve funds beyond the cost of a trailhead would require a public vote.”

Mr. Meyers says his petition can get the ball rolling in the right direction.

“There is significant interest in this. We went out and gathered the signatures from people who lived all around the city,” he explained. “We collected 460 signatures, but most people you approach they don’t even know that this is going on. They (city leaders) have kept the DDC from the public.”

Mr. Meyers and community supporters have formed a corp. coined “Protect our Preserve” to be able to legally raise funds and raise community awareness of the perceived issues surrounding the Discovery Center.

“The second reason we formed the corp. is to be able to raise legal funds. We believe there are a number of legal challenges, but we can’t address that until the DDCS comes back with their plan. No matter what they decide there will be legal challenges.”

Mr. Meyers says his citizen group is not “necessarily opposed to the DDC.”

“You have to prove to the citizens that the DDC will bring income into the city in order to build it,” he said of trying to find a happy medium. “If you can do that, then we are fine with the DDC, but it needs to be outside of the Preserve.”

Jason Alexander

Jason Alexander

Mr. Alexander, who spearheads an anonymous group titled “No DDC,” has a different approach and says he has no plans on forming a corp. or political action committee despite raising funds through a Go Fund Me campaign.

The No DDC group has raised $1,825 as of Wednesday, Sept. 7.

“We have been sharing the message that the DDC is being proposed as a 30-acre tourist event center,” he said in an Aug. 30 phone interview. “It is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $70 million. The public will not have a vote on this.”

Fueled by public records, Mr. Alexander is steadfast in his assertion elected leaders in Scottsdale are in cahoots with DDCS members pushing the Discovery Center through the municipal process.

“I think the critical mass would be support from the citizens of Scottsdale as a public vote,” he said of how he interprets the idea of what critical mass ought to be sought regarding the Discovery Center.

Mr. Alexander says any changes to already hatched plans is just political posturing during an election year — one that features a contentious race for the mayor’s seat.

“We have said all along that we are not a ‘no’ group,” he said of he and his anonymous group members.

“But when you start talking about global destination; in the city contract with DDCS they talk about meeting facilities, boardroom facilities and an amphitheater? These things are not commercial? They are talking about it (the Discovery Center) being the next big thing in Scottsdale, but just a snack bar?”

Mr. Alexander says the anonymity of his group is allowed to protect its members.

“I started out as a volunteer — a citizen activist. But it’s a big leap to do by yourself,” he said. “We have said some harsh things about people based on their actions. We don’t want it be about us. There is definitely some fear of retaliation from the powers that be.”

The happy medium for Mr. Alexander, and he says, the anonymous members of No DDC, is simple: strict adherence to the established Preserve ordinance and a public vote on any and all issues Discovery Center.

A view of the April 21 information meeting on the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center hosted by the nonprofit charged with running the desert appreciation venue. (Submitted photo)

A view of the April 21 information meeting on the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center hosted by the nonprofit charged with running the desert appreciation venue. (Submitted photo)

Questions surround city survey

At the Scottsdale municipal website, the city has been hosting an online community survey in conjunction with the April 20-21 outreach meetings hosted by the DDCS to try and gauge the community perspective on issues surrounding the prospect of the Discovery Center.

“When the city hands out a survey during a public meeting we often replicate it online so that people who are unable to attend the meeting can participate in the process and let us know what they think,” said Scottsdale Public Information Officer Erin Walsh in a Sept. 1 internal memo explaining to senior city staff irregularities found in the online respondents to portions of the citizen survey.

“Results of the online survey in some respects appear to be unusual. Multiple duplicate entries were received, often within seconds of each other. We worked with the city of Scottsdale Information Technology, Web Services Division to analyze the results of the survey.”

Ms. Walsh explains multiple entries where identical and within seconds of each other.

“Once the unusual response pattern was recognized we enabled CAPTCHA to add another level of protection. We did received additional multiple entries after the CAPTCHA was turned on,” she explained to city leaders.

“The IT Department was able to tell us which entries were irregular but not able to conclusively eliminate any individual entry. Since this survey was intended to be a tool to help the design team make understand public opinion and community values associated with the project, the decision was made to note multiple entries, but not eliminate any of the feedback that was received.”

In all, 1,496 entries were made into a portion of the online survey and showed a dramatic swing of 1,408 “no” opinions compared to 85 positive entries in regard to the prospect of the Discovery Center.
City officials in two different instances mention a public records request filed around the time anomalies were discovered in the citizen survey.

“Yesterday, it was brought to my attention that the city had just responded to a public records request regarding an online survey on the DDC,” said Brian Biesemeyer, acting city manager, in a Sept. 1 briefing to Scottsdale City Council.

“This request was made in May, however, the survey data had some anomalies that caused staff to question its validity and further analyze the input, prior to releasing it. The anomalies were related to multiple similar input submitted within seconds of each other and suggested the possibility of an automated attempt to influence the survey.”

That public records request was filed by Mr. Alexander. But when asked directly if he had anything to do with the alleged tampering with the citizen survey, he responded:

“We just deleted the two columns that contain names and emails, after someone suggested it. The file we shared is otherwise from the city.”

City officials say they are unable prove the citizen survey was tampered with.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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