Mystery surrounding Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center proposal may be solved July 31

DDC Executive Director Sam Campana addresses Scottsdale City Council during the DDC Process Timeline Update presentation while some residents express disagreement with Ms. Campana’s remarks by holding up a red piece of paper at June 13 meeting. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Editor’s note: a memorandum of understanding between Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale and Arizona State University was provided to the Independent just after our print deadline Friday, June 16. An earlier version of this story was posted prior to the document being provided to the Independent. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Rumor, innuendo and accusations continue to swirl around a proposed desert-appreciation venue at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve meant to salute Scottsdale’s collective conscientious approach to the idea of land preservation.

Proponents and detractors alike agree, however, that all questions regarding the Desert Discovery Center proposal should be answered Monday, July 31.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Executive Director Sam Campana has announced her group will be delivering the formal plan to Scottsdale City Council on the last day of July.

Ms. Campana provided that update to the community at Scottsdale City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

“I am very happy to be here this evening to share the progress that we are making at the Desert Discovery Center,” she said at the onset of her message to city council.

“We are a city project. Our mission is to educate and inspire a global audience to value, thrive in and conserve desert environments through transformative experiences based on scientific studies in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve and from around the world.”

Those opposing the proposed Desert Discovery Center held up red pieces of paper to show their opposition and disagreement to what was being said during the DDC Process Timeline Update presentation at the June 13 meeting. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The proposal for the Discovery Center has become the focal point of local politics with citizen factions speaking out on both sides of the issue.

The DDCS outfit has been paid $1.69 million to develop a plan that includes a popular local architecture firm in Swaback Partners, and an acclaimed design outfit out of New York City called Thinc Design.

The proposal has invigorated two community advocates — Howard Myers and Jason Alexander — who remain steadfast in their assertion the public must decide what occurs in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Mr. Alexander has become the public face of the anonymous “No DDC” community group, which became a political action committee Sept. 20, and he is now listed as the statutory agent for NODDC, Inc., according to a May 18 filing at the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Proponents of the Discovery Center 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.

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.

Ms. Campana, a former mayor of Scottsdale, says she and her fellow DDCS cohorts have “aspirations to build anticipation for exploration.”

“We are the community-led, public-private partnership with deep ties to the Scottsdale and McDowell Sonroan Preserve,” she said pointing out the group has been listening to community critiques of efforts thus far.

“Functions that directly contribute to place-based learning visitor experiences will be on site but non-essential functions will be off site,” she said of concerns over office and commercial operations being part of the initial planning phase. “The architecture will blur the lines between indoor and outdoor experiences. Our emerging concept is a small footprint but still a big vision.”

Ms. Campana contends the “big vision” will inspire the next generation of local stewards.

“We intend through these experience to peel back the layers of the desert and its history to reveal its thriving ecosystem,” she explained.

“We intend to go from preservation, fencing it off, to sustainability giving everyone access and education. A desert experience that would create knowledge and empathy, love and protection. We believe you protect what you love and you love what you know — the DDC will help us all love and know our preserve.”

Ms. Campana outlined a proposal defining the Discovery Center as a research entity with global impacts for potential discoveries to be made in north Scottsdale.

“How can we change the future and how can we change the future together?” is a question she posed to the crowd at City Hall.

“We have been hard at work identifying community partners. We have a memorandum of understanding with ASU. Our next steps are that our fundraising feasibility study will be complete. To date we have raised over half a million dollars in cash and in-kind donations nearly doubled what we were required to raise. The business plan and experience site plan will both be completed at the end of July.”

Ms. Campana says the DDCS group will host an open house in August that may outline the group’s effort to develop a municipal site plan for the entire proposed Discovery Center footprint within the Preserve.

“We believe the Desert Discovery Center will teach the next generation a culture of conservation,” she said.

The memorandum of understanding between DDCS and Arizona State University was provided to the Scottsdale Independent just after press time Friday, June 16.

Scottsdale Public Works Director Dan Worth speaks to the City Council during the DDC Process Timeline Update presentation while some residents raise their fist in opposition to Mr. Worth’s comments at the June 13 meeting. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

DDC municipal dealings

Scottsdale City Council in January 2016 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 a Desert Discovery Center at the Gateway to the Preserve.

That measure passed 6 to 1 with only Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voting against the measure. She, at that time and to today, says she feels 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 Scottsdale;
  • 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.

The resolution requires the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the Desert Discovery Center and to develop a plan to adequately cover annual operating costs to be presented to Scottsdale City Council 18 months after the January approval.

Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Swaback Partners June , 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 to 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 Discovery Center at a rate of $278,840 plus $30,000 in expenses, according to Ms Campana.

Residents express disagreement and opposition to the DDC Process Timeline Update presentation while Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane listens at the Tuesday, June 13. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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