Line in the sand: Scottsdale Desert EDGE quandary shapes local perception

It was standing-room only at Scottsdale City Hall Tuesday, Sept. 26 as Scottsdale City Council begins to deliberate the tenets of the Desert EDGE proposal. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The simmering debate over whether or not to build a desert-appreciation venue near the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve has finally reached city council chambers.

During their first public study session to review the initial proposal, council members quickly moved the discussion to a new debate: should voters be allowed to determine the final fate of the building.

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane held steadfast to his word during the Sept. 26 study session. He pledged to pursue a public vote of some kind to offer residents an opportunity to have their voices heard regarding the creation of a desert-appreciation venue.

“My feelings are as strong as anyone’s on this topic,” Mayor Lane said. “I have never seen the city more torn apart in any other way. I am concerned about the damage that has already happened to our city — we need to consider how to bring this city together.”

Formal municipal deliberations of what was first coined “The Desert Discovery Center,” but now envisaged as “The Desert EDGE,” began during a Scottsdale City Council study session.

Proponents of the Desert EDGE say the Preserve itself 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.

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane during the Sept. 26 work study discussion regarding the Desert EDGE proposal. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Initial discussion focused on the overall description of the proposed project — and where the city would find the public money to pay for it.

Mayor Lane — to the chagrin of a few members of city council it appeared — has asked city staff to look into possible ballot measures to determine the fate of the Desert EDGE proposal.

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

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has also announced a formal partnership with the Global Drylands Institute at Arizona State University.

It was standing-room only at the recent study session as nearly 100 people filled council chambers to hear the local governing board debate the merits of the Desert EDGE.

Residents chimed in, calling for a better “economic rigor” of the pros and cons of the project while the sister of a beloved mayor — Herb Drinkwater — ensured council members how the late mayor would have liked it.

Residents, proponents of the project and detractors of the effort, displayed signs during the four-hour discussion expressing their points of view, which primarily centered around the idea of whether or not the issue should be put before the voters.

Following the development pitch, which included several impassioned presentations from the hired hands to move the project forward, Scottsdale City Council got to work and assigned to city staff a number of tasks to be completed in the next 30 days:

  • Ballot language that outlines the scope of the Desert EDGE proposal — not naming the project by name, but putting it to voters to decide the primary footprint of the development;
  • Ballot language that outlines a Charter amendment defining how Preserve funds could be used in the future specific to maintenance and operations of existing structures and trail heads;
  • Ballot language that would end the city’s tax on food; a Charter amendment defining the usage of Preserve fund dollars and a 50/50 pitch to allow 50 percent of money derived from the Preserve fund to be used for the Desert EDGE and operations and maintenance of existing structures; and
  • Fine tuning construction costs and better understanding operation costs and where exactly public funds would come from to pay for construction and operation of the proposed desert-appreciation venue.
  • Amend the General Plan to allow construction of Desert Edge in the Preserve, and prohibit future construction of projects of similar size, scope and location to be built in the Preserve.
  • Develop a work plan, timeframe, and cost estimates to review of the Desert Edge business plan, budget, funding sources, revenue sources, and capital expenses; a detailed analysis of construction costs, operation and maintenance costs, and parking costs, including whether the same project can be built for less; the feasibility of phased construction; and a study of what the economic impact of the project to the city as a whole would be if it is, and if it is not, completed.
  • Clarification from the Tourism Development Commission on how much of the bed tax they recommended to fund the project.
  • How much of Preserve tax is available to fund Desert Edge, with and without the food for home consumption tax.
  • Clarification on how ASU and the Conservancy might participate.

The proposed building would include 47,584 gross square feet and a total proposed height of 24 feet, on a disturbed area of 5.34 acres. Total cost is projected to be $33,533,443 for construction of the “pavilions.”

However the total capital cost is $61,184,466, and that includes:

  • Architecture and exhibition cost construction: $49,794,153.
  • Project support and contingency: $10,784,526.
  • Public art: $605,787.

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.

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

How we got here

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.

John Sather of Swaback Partners

That resolution, among other things, enabled a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a desert-appreciation venue.

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

On June 7, Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based architectural firm, Swaback Partners. The contract allows Swaback to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned facility.

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

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

Devil in the details

The work study discussion, said Mayor Lane, was a time for council to hear the results of the study created by that initial $1.6 million allocation to discover the merits of the Desert EDGE proposal.

“We want to discuss this thing on the merits and value to our residents.”

The one thing members of city council agreed upon: Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale met all the tenets of its contract approved about 18 months ago this week.

“But it is still a matter that it is a very important project and there has been much conversation … it is something that the citizens do have a desire to be heard on,” Mayor Lane explained.

“I know there are some intangible benefits, but there is still a significant amount of risk for the residents and the city. We do have an obligation to have a project that is understood and verified in the greatest manner possible.”

Mayor Lane, an accountant by trade, expressed concerns over the projected operating deficit — a deficit the proposal said would need to be covered by fundraising, a third party or the city.

“There is no entitlement from the (federal government)… so there is some risk there,” said the mayor.

DDCS Executive Director Sam Campana

Ms. Campana says the projected deficit is normal in a nonprofit operation such as this.

“You have earned revenue and unearned revenue — it is never going to be 100 percent,” said Ms. Campana.

“We are professionals and we will manage that. We don’t envision ASU renting any space but they will provide all (full-time equivalent positions) and provide for all of their footprint, and we think this is going to be a very beneficial partnership, but not with an exchange of money for us.”

Mayor Lane wasn’t buying it.

“Call it whatever you want, but that is a deficit,” he said, referring to the projected annual shortfall in earned revenue.

“My question is where will it come from?” asked the mayor.

Ms. Campana explains raising millions of dollars for a project such as this one is par for the course.

“We have the capacity to raise about $10 million we believe, and these dollars will be put into the reserve fund to temper any issues in the future,” she said.

“But there is no way to quantify that. This is a city project; we are not a developer who is coming in and you are giving them land — this is your project.”

To vote or not to vote?

Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven says she is an “enthusiastic supporter of this project,” pointing out the value of education this project will be bring to the city of Scottsdale and its residents.

“Do we live in a community that will invest in a facility like this?” she asked.

Councilwoman Linda Milhaven

“I think by teaching youth about the arid region we live in, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, and through education we can ensure the sustainability of the Preserve.”

Councilman David Smith echoed some of those same sentiments.

“I am pleased with the study we have in front of us — this is certainly the most exhaustive marketing and business plan that has ever been presented for a city project,” he said.

“We spent $1.7 million and I think we got a good return on that investment.”

The architecture was designed twice by Swaback Partners, as back in 2010 the firm was provided $432,000 to design the first plan of what was originally called “The Desert Discovery Center,” which brings the total municipal investment to just over $2 million thus far for schematics provided.

Vice mayor Suzanne Klapp called into question the lack of financial commitment on behalf of Arizona State University and also offered a provision to be inserted into the pending General Plan update likely put before the voters during the 2018 general election cycle.

“I am concerned of where the money is going to come from?” she asked. “We are including 9,000 square feet dedicated for the Global Drylands Institute — and I think that is a great part of this project — but we should not be using taxpayer dollars to pay for that building,” she said.

Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield didn’t pull any punches.

Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield

“I think we are losing sight of something and that is very concerning to me,” she said. “The Preserve was never meant to be a tourist attraction, it is not a city park.”

Councilwoman Littlefield has not shifted her stance. She thinks a public vote must occur for commercial construction to be allowed in within Preserve boundaries.

“More and more of this city funding for those attractions and projects will all be going to one project and that is very concerning me,” she said of significant annual revenue needs illustrated by the Desert EDGE proposal.

“Extending the bed tax into the future is a tax increase. We were going to close that down in 2027 so, in fact, the citizens will be paying a tax increase. I have a problem with the lack of detail and the lack of real numbers on this. I am not sure we are being honest with citizens.”

Councilwoman Littlefield says she is curious why there is so much push-back against pursuing a public vote on a $61 million project? A similar situation, she said, emerged during expansions at WestWorld of Scottsdale.

“If we don’t allow the citizens to vote … I can’t honestly believe that they are not going to notice. They are going to be offended and they should be. Our citizens are not stupid and their memories can be very long,” she said.

Councilwoman Littlefield contends deep political repercussions would likely emerge if no public vote were to be offered.

“If we don’t agree to have a vote for the citizens, I think you need to take a look at the political repercussions,” she said. “If we do this without the input of our citizens it will hurt us.”

Councilwoman Littlefield says those political repercussions will be far reaching and could ultimately hurt the billion-dollar tourism brand the city has cultivated over the last 25 years.

“Do you honestly think we will get a bond vote through in the next 10 years if we don’t have a public vote on this?” she asked.

“This does go against our current ordinances. The reason that a vote is not wanted is they are afraid the public will say, ‘no.’ Why do we feel that we have to warn against our citizens to put a project in place?”

Mayor Lane says he is in full agreement with Councilwoman Littlefield.

“I am in agreement with you,” he said with the crack of a smile. “And, not often councilwoman, can I say that, but I am, and I have been for some time now. I appreciate the comments all the way around.”

Councilwoman Milhaven had a different take on the situation.

“They have the ability to get their vote,” she said noting the public referendum rules in Arizona.

“The eloquence of our democracy is found in the checks and balances. We are setting a very dangerous public precedent,” she pointed out. “I think it is bad policy … I will not support any language that usurps the power of democracy.”

NoDDC supporters lined the walls of council chambers Tuesday, Sept. 26 at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Checks and balances

Some say the ultimate check for the balance of government power can be found in the United States judicial system.

Protect Our Preserve and NoDDC, Inc. — united Sept. 26 to sue the city of Scottsdale to enforce the rights of voters guaranteed under the city Charter.

Their legal action is meant to force a public vote on the scope and operations of the Desert EDGE.
The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy also released a statement Sept. 26, outlining a number of reasons the Conservancy doesn’t support the proposal.

The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy states its mission is to champion the sustainability of the Preserve, for the benefit of this and future generations.

The Conservancy outlined its four points of opposition:

  1. No Preserve tax dollars should be used (or?) considered for the Desert EDGE proposal before all future funds for the expansion, care, maintenance and capital needs of the Preserve are first secured.
  2. The city ought to minimize the risk of the reported operational shortfall at Desert EDGE by requiring a higher level of financial operating funding and reserves.
  3. The Preserve is a Preserve, not a park.
  4. The Desert EDGE opens up the Preserve for future development within the Preserve boundaries.

The letter, which was provided to the Scottsdale Independent newspaper, was signed by both the chairman of the Conservancy, Greg Kruzel, and Paul Staker, interim Conservancy executive director.

The case is expected to be heard in October. Both groups support the public’s right to vote on the future of the Desert EDGE.

“It is truly unfortunate when citizens are forced to band together to sue their own city to enforce basic rights. Our City Charter, our local version of our Constitution, was amended in 1999 to assure that major projects to be built upon the McDowell Sonoran Preserve could only be built if voters approved the proposed construction,” the co-plaintiffs said in a joint statement.

“Based on that Charter promise, we agreed to tax ourselves paying over $1 billion to buy the land that creates our Preserve.”

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

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