New stage in Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center saga takes shape

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 informational meeting on the concept of a Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, which was hosted by the nonprofit charged with running the pursued desert appreciation venue. (Submitted photo)

Proponents of the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center say by June an architect and experience designer should be under the employment of the both the city and the nonprofit entity Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale as concrete plans appear to be developing.

Last January Scottsdale City Council 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.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voted against the January measure citing any changes to existing plans at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve should be vetted and voted on by the residents of Scottsdale. Proponents of the desert appreciation venue contend the measure will allow the city to realize the dream of residents while some say the idea is too grand for a place meant to honor preservation.

Kathy Littlefield

Kathy Littlefield

“This is a project that has been in the works at various locations for about 20 years now,” she said in an April 27 phone interview. “My concerns with the Desert Discovery Center is not having the Desert Discovery Center that might well be very appropriate considering we have a huge desert preserve in our backyard.”

The Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve encompasses 21,400 acres of land within the rough boundaries of the Pinnacle Peak Road alignment to the west, McDowell Mountain Regional Park to the east, Happy Valley Road to the north and Via Linda Road alignment to the south. Most recently, Scottsdale acquired 2,365 acres of land at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve at a state land auction held in November 2014.

Councilwoman Littlefield contends proponents of the project already have plans in mind and as June hires are announced those plans will be developed into schematics and a planned presentation to Scottsdale City Council months later.

“This project, as it is currently being looked at, and they know exactly what they want in this — I have seen pictures of it,” she said. “They want a lot of things for this Desert Discovery Center that is forbidden in the preserve.”

In September 2015, Scottsdale City Council instructed the city treasurer to identify funding sources for the first phase of negotiations between the identified vendor for the facility: Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc.

In March of last year, Scottsdale City Council OK’d the issuance of a request for qualifications for potential suitors for the proposed Sonoran Desert appreciation venue.

That request for qualified applicants primarily included finding a third-party, nonprofit entity to operate and construct the proposed desert-appreciation venue.
Resolution 10261, 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.

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)

A community effort

On the heels of two public open houses where Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale officials hosted informational meetings on proposed plans, Christine Kovach, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale chair of the board, says the hired hands will listen to community guidance.

“The architect will listen to the community, listen to us and we have said early on that form needs to follow function,” she said in an April 26 phone interview. “Everything that will happen with the facility will be the driving force in what they actually design.”

Gary Meyer, Scottsdale senior project manager, says city officials expect to present an architectural services contract before city council at its June 7 meeting while officials at Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale expect to hire an experience designer within the same time period.

“We are hoping to have the architectural services contract on the city council agenda on June 7,” he said in an April 26 statement.

“This depends on successfully negotiating the scope of work and fees before the council packet is due to the city clerk. The Public Works Department is heading up this effort.”

Ms. Kovach, a longtime supporter of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve who helped establish the Preserve itself in the early 1990s, says this time around industry professionals will be leading the aesthetic charge of the proposed design and offerings of the Desert Discovery Center.

“What we do know is the vision, the education component and the Desert Discovery Center have to work together,” she said. “Unlike past studies this is being led by industry professionals who really want to make sure this gets done right. We are going to be guiding that direction with a lot of help from experts.”

Ms. Kovach says community input will trump all others as the scope and breadth of this desert appreciation venue is further vetted.

“We are not turning this project over to these consultants at all,” she said. “The city has shown through all of the studies over the last 25-year span of just continuing to say we need to have something at the Preserve.”

A new approach?

Scottsdale Vice Mayor David Smith says he believes the latest effort toward the creation of a Desert Discovery Center is a new one.

David Smith

David Smith

“I think the short answer to that is, yes, it is a new approach,” he said of the formal hiring of both an architect and experience designer. “They should clearly define what this discovery center could actually be because it was never really, clearly nailed down that is what we are talking about beyond what was presented conceptually.”

Vice Mayor Smith says the plan has to answer the question: what is the scope, the size and the array of things that it might offer?

“I have talked to many people who are very much in favor of what I will call an interpretive center,” he said. “Something that would be uniquely Scottsdale as both an attraction to tourists and to local residents.”

There is a need for a desert appreciation venue as the McDowell Sonoran Preserve’s overall effort is a community-wide effort all residents have a hand in paying for.

“Just hiking in the Preserve does not give you an understanding of the uniqueness of the ecological innovation that we live in,” he said.

“What I can say is whether or not I am in favor of the particular Desert Discovery Center people have in their minds — because I have no idea what is in everyone’s minds. What I really want to know is how can we divide this into bite-size chunks with subsequent stages over a period of time.”

Vice Mayor Smith says he needs some clarity to the project.

“I am not unrealistic, there are some people who will love it no matter what it is and there will be people who will hate it no matter what it is,” he said. “None of that has been settled into a final recommendation, the ambiguity has been a big problem with this project. Out of all of this, in 18 months we should have a definition for this project.”

New approach or not, Councilwoman Littlefield says the matter needs to go to a public vote.

“We are not giving our residents a chance to say, ‘no,’” she said. “If it goes to a vote and people say, ‘OK we want this,’ then I am OK with that.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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