Dec. 11: The day Scottsdale closed the Desert EDGE chapter

A view of the boundary line between concrete and preserved lands at at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale. (File Photo)

Tuesday, Dec. 11 may be a turning point atop Scottsdale City Council as the governing board — for once and for all — put an end to the prospects of a desert-appreciation venue within the bounds of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Scottsdale City Council voted unanimously Dec. 11 to end all municipal efforts for a project originally envisaged as the Desert Discover Center but later realized as the Desert EDGE.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue in July 2016, but proponents of the project remain steadfast to the assertion the research facility was always in the works. The effort was spearheaded by Sam Campana, former mayor of Scottsdale, who is serving as executive director of the nonprofit, which until yesterday, was charged with developing the Desert EDGE proposal.

The file photo illustrates a common theme: community members speaking out against construction within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (File Photo)

That Desert EDGE proposal, which came at a cost of just over $1.6 million and many believe has been the catalyst for the immersion of a new political narrative, will not emerge at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

Proponents of the now failed Desert EDGE effort said the Preserve itself is not enough for visitors to appreciate the McDowell Sonoran Preserve while detractors say the proposed facility — a desert-appreciation venue and research center — 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.

Scottsdale City Council first approved the idea to construct an interpretive desert-appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert in January 2016. The measure was approved with three caveats and included a budget transfer of $1.69 million to create the initial proposal.

That measure passed 6 to 1 with only Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voting against the measure. Ms. Littlefield felt 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. But what it also did was ignite a grassroots effort to limit any and all construction within Preserve bounds materialized in Proposition 420.

Community activists behind both the Protect Our Preserve and NoDDC campaigns provided Scottsdale City Hall more than 37,000 signatures forcing Proposition 420 onto the upcoming November ballot.

The signature-gathering efforts were spearheaded by two community groups — Protect Our Preserve and NoDDC — resulting in the historic outcome of more than 70 percent of ballots cast being in support of Proposition 420, official results show.

Proposition 420 requires voter approval for all commercial construction and usage of earmarked conservation dollars within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Scottsdale City Manager Jim Thompson (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The final resolution

In its first unanimous decision regarding the Desert EDGE proposal, Scottsdale City Council approved Resolution No. 11339 officially putting an end to all municipal dealings regarding the project.

Scottsdale City Manager Jim Thompson outlined the official kabash of the project and political focal point.

“Before you this evening is a request made from City Council to consider bringing the Desert Discovery Center or Desert EDGE to conclusion,” he said at the onset of the Dec. 11 public hearing.

Initially, Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte offered an approval motion —  she was the one who asked for the item to be agendized — but Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield offered another option.

Councilwoman Littlefield sought to have two items added to the formal resolution:

  • To ensure no more tourism development fund payments are made to Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc. and Swaback Partners, which was the architectural firm charged with developing artistic renderings for each of the iterations of the desert-appreciation venue proposal; and
  • To ensure any mention of the DDC or the Desert EDGE no longer be listed as a municipal project or appear as a capital improvement project.

Located on less than 6 acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, the proposal included a series of structures coined “pavilions” and had cost estimates somewhere between $61.2 and $68.2 million to build.

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc. had also announced a formal partnership with the Global Drylands Institute at Arizona State University, but while ASU has committed to providing staff and setting up its Drylands Institute in Scottsdale — which would have only included scientific apparatus — no funding will be provided by the university.

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

“Since I brought this item to the agenda about a month ago I wanted to make it more broad and clear for our citizens,” Ms. Korte said of the specific language within the formal resolution. “The Desert Discovery Center or other similar projects such as a nature education center. Everything that Councilwoman Littlefield pointed out is already included in the analysis and assessment section (of the resolution).”

Ms. Littlefield agreed and Mr. Thompson verified her requests pointing out $271,196 will go back into the tourism development fund.

“We have already closed out those contracts, but we are happy to ensure that they are still closed out,” Mr. Thompson said. “The funds in question weren’t Preserve monies, but tourism monies and the amount $271,196 to be exact. Although we did leave that contract open but we did not spend those funds.”

Mr. Thompson says zero municipal efforts will be going toward the development of a new iteration of the Desert Discovery Center.

“Between the vote that occurred in the community and the position taken and what you are doing this evening we, from a staff perspective, will not spending any more time or energy on this project,” he said.

“We consider this matter closed. The matter is done and closed. It will not appear as a bond question, it will not appear in finance, and it will not appear in the CIP. There is nothing else out there other than this conversation.”

Kathy Littlefield (File photo)

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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