Desert EDGE pondered at Taliesin West while signature effort gains support

A view of Taliesin West itself as the sun sets in north Scottsdale. (Photo credit: Foskett Creative)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story should have explained the ongoing signature effort is being conducted by the Protect Our Preserve political action committee. Also, the NoDDC citizen group is now classified as a nonprofit organization.

While the public discourse has retreated to a dull roar, Desert EDGE proponents and detractors are eagerly awaiting the results of a citizen referendum meant to force into the hand of the general public the decision of how the desert-appreciation venue will or will not emerge.

But a new narrative is emerging: the prospect of a notable location outside of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Last November, Scottsdale City Council, amongst a bevy of other considerations, instructed city staff to “provide time for the citizen initiative petition process to be completed before moving froward” with any and all formal actions regarding the construction of the what was first coined “the Desert Discovery Center,” but now envisaged as “the Desert EDGE.”

A month earlier, following when the formal plan was unveiled at Scottsdale City Council in summer 2017, the local governing body sought several legal and ballot language clarifications.

Proponents and detractors alike now agree new locations are also being formally evaluated by city staff with the idea of Taliesin West garnering the imaginations of local political aficionados.

“While it has been brought up in conversations as one of many options, and, per the council direction, we are in discussions with the city evaluating feasibility, there is nothing to discuss at this time,” said Frank Loyd Wright Foundation Marketing and Communication Director Jeff Goodman in a Jan. 9 statement to the Scottsdale Independent.

Taliesin West in north Scottsdale is widely regarded as an architectural masterpiece, a training ground for up-and-coming architects and a tourist attraction already seeing more than 100,000 visitors a year.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation continues to work with the city of Scottsdale in an effort to better facilitate preservation efforts at Taliesin West as current and future renovation plans must pass through city guidelines to maintain historical significance.

But zero details of how this idea of a Desert EDGE on property owned by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation could come to fruition is available at this time, Scottsdale and Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation officials agree.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue July 31, 2017. Located on less than six acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, the center includes a series of structures coined “pavilions” and might cost somewhere between $61.2 and $68.2 million to build.

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has 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 include scientific apparatus, proponents say — no funding will be provided by the university.

Proponents of the Desert EDGE estimated that about 306,000 human beings will visit the desert-appreciation acreage every year and that annual operating expense will be about $6.3 million. About $1.7 million will have to be gathered from donations or city funds on an annual basis, the business plan shows.

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.

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

Location, location, location

Desert EDGE officials came to the Scottsdale Independent Thursday, Jan. 4 to discuss the future prospects of the embattled municipal project.

Those in attendance — Sam Campana, executive director; Christine Kovach, board chairwoman; and Lynne Lagarde, project advocate and zoning attorney — contend the Desert EDGE effort is a city project and the ball is now in the Scottsdale City Council’s court.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Executive Director Sam Campana speaks during a recent city council hearing. (File photo)

“From our perspective, we believe it is in the right place,” Ms. Lagarde said Jan. 4 at the Independent offices. “The project would have to be rethought and the project redesigned — you would have the same views at Taliesin. I don’t think it’s fair for us to say we like it or not.”

Ms. Lagarde agrees everyone will never be happy with whatever location is chosen or the final scope of the Desert EDGE venue.

“As a preservationist — they believe there should not be anything built there at all. I think this is the best location for the mission of that project,” she said of the presented site location of the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

“You know you are there. I don’t know if you accomplish the mission of the Preserve with the Desert EDGE in downtown or anywhere else unless it is in the Preserve.”

Ms. Campana says DDCS are stewards of the municipal contract to bring the Desert EDGE project forward.

“We know the city is looking at additional sites,” she said Jan. 4. “We believe the city should take the due diligence to evaluate all potential sites. We love what we did and now the city has to make a decision.”

But when asked directly if she believes an alternate location is a viable solution to the community chagrin surrounding the project, Ms. Campana took a neutral posture.

“We are still under contract with the city of Scottsdale and it is up to them how we proceed,” she said. “We think we brought the best plan at the best site for the project.”

Jason Alexander, co-founder of the NoDDC citizen group, has filed an IRS complaint alleging the nonprofit group — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — “has been and continues to be engaged in substantial lobbying activities regarding the construction of the Desert Discovery Center, even though its filings with the IRS deny any lobbying activity.”

The NoDDC complaint contains 30 separate exhibits alerting the IRS to alleged violations of the group’s nonprofit status and was filed in November 2017, according to Mr. Alexander.

“I don’t believe that they are sincere,” he said in a Jan. 8 phone interview.

“They are giving us lip service to calm the public concerns. They have for nearly 10 years, the same group of people, pushed for this location because first and foremost they get access to the Preserve fund. Their party line for the last several years is, ‘we don’t need your vote, we don’t need your permission to do this.’”

Mr. Alexander says his fight is not so much the location as it is preserving a public vote on the matter, after all he says, it’s refereed to as the “People’s Preserve.”

“The site is not so much the issue, as much as the money, lack of a public vote and the future threat to the Preserve,” he said.

“The Taliesin concept entered the conversation about six months ago. Our organization certainly has offered to support that as a basis of compromise. But the challenge from the proponents is it is not on Preserve ground and they don’t want that because then they don’t have access to the Preserve funds.”

A view of the recent NoDDC signature gathering event held at Windgate Ranch. (Submitted photo)

An emotional landscape

The local political fight, the name calling, the legal protests and complaints have many on both sides of the issue asking, “how did it come to this?”

“It is hard to pull all that back in — that is a question we have asked ourselves,” said Ms. Kovach Jan. 4 at the Independent.

“We just keep delivering that message. All we can do is keep the facts in front of people. I think when the project is built — the community will embrace the project.”

Duke Reiter, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, speaks of the need for understanding arid regions at a recent public hearing. (File photo)

Ms. Kovach says in the next few decades the pursuit of a fundamental understanding of living in arid regions will be at the forefront of many in the United States and across the globe.

“I think it is about teaching people about the desert in which we live,” she said.

“I think it brings multiple benefits for the community and for the economy — a minimal impact with multiple benefits. You will understand the desert and when you leave you will have an appreciation for the desert and want to live better in the desert.”

Ms. Kovach contends the Desert EDGE will separate Scottsdale from the tourism destination pack.

“It is worth fighting for,” she said noting a recent experience at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

“When you leave there, you actually want to be a better steward of the ocean — that can happen for the Sonoran Desert. You will never think the same way about the desert. What is not a part of this plan is the political part — where is the best location with the least political fight.”

All that sounds great to Mr. Alexander, just let the public have their say on the matter.

“Absolutely, if the seven compromise and the voters get a public vote we go back to mountain biking,” he said. “As much as we don’t like the project if the voters get that opportunity — we stop.”

But Mr. Alexander also says he and his fellow supporters are prepared to gather the needed signatures to force the item on a public ballot.

“With regard to our signature effort, we are very optimistic that we can pull it off,” he said. “We had 100 people last Saturday at Windgate Ranch. You will be seeing folks at dog parks, everywhere for the next weeks as we look to gather 30,000 signatures.”

Mr. Alexander says the NoDDC group — which has now formed a political action committee coined “Protect Our Preserve” — is hosting another signature training session on Saturday, Jan. 20 in south Scottsdale, but a location has yet to be announced.

“We feel like this is the fourth quarter,” he said noting that even he was surprised on the volunteer turnout and the uniformity off the signature gathering effort. “I certainly wish the city would provide for a public vote and save us all the effort but we’re going to take back the Preserve this way.”

Scottsdale resident Pat Shaler at the signature training event held in north Scottsdale. (Submitted photo)

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

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