Scottsdale City Council candidates define stance on Desert Discovery Center

Scottsdale Election 2

Local voters Tuesday, Nov. 8 will elect a mayor and three members to Scottsdale City Council as two candidates are in pursuit of the mayor’s seat while there are four candidates seeking three city council seats.

Because of a March 2010 approved amendment to the City Charter — Scottsdale’s constitution — the city can forgo the primary election process if no more than two candidates exist for each open seat, according to Scottsdale City Clerk Carolyn Jagger. Following mayoral candidate Bill Crawford’s campaign abandonment, the city’s elections will be pushed to the November general election, a move officials say will save the municipality about $150,000.

Scottsdale mayoral candidates are Mayor Jim Lane and challenger Bob Littlefield while council candidates are Suzanne Klapp, Virginia Korte, Guy Phillips and Dan Schweiker. Ms. Klapp, Ms. Korte and Mr. Phillips are seeking re-election.

The Scottsdale Independent and the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce will be hosting two debates — the first, Tuesday, Sept. 27 will be focused on the mayor’s race while the second, Tuesday, Oct. 4 will focus on city council candidates.

Both are from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Doubletree Resort by Hilton, 5401 N. Scottsdale Road, and will be moderated by Scottsdale Independent Editor Terrance Thornton.

Leading up to the Sept. 27 debate the Scottsdale Independent is offering candidates an opportunity to participate in a question-and-answer series to help voters better understand where they stand on local issues that matter.

This week’s installment is on what these candidates think the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center vision should be and if they will fight for a public vote on the scope, vision and price tag for the desert appreciation venue.

The politics of a discovery center

Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based architectural firm, Swaback Partners, June 7 by a 5 to 2 vote 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 the first iteration of what the Desert Discovery Center would be in January 2010 for $432,000, records show.

The new incarnation of the Discovery Center began in September 2015 when 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.

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.

That measure passed 6 to 1 with only Councilwoman Littlefield voting against the measure citing any changes to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve zoning restrictions ought to be voted on by the general public.

The January 2016 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 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.

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.

The mayoral race

Both Mayor Lane and challenger, Mr. Littlefield, agreed to respond to specific questions about the Discovery Center and their appetite for pushing for a public vote on the matter. This is what they had to say:

Jim Lane

•Do you support the Desert Discovery Center? If so, how do you envision the project?

Jim Lane

Jim Lane

In 2008 the DDC was envisioned at 20,000 square feet. Today it is envisioned at more than 70,000 square feet. I do not support this. What I do support is a Charter amendment to address this issue.

My opponent Bob Littlefield supported a DDC. In a city council hearing on July 1, 2008, Bob Littlefield said:

“The Desert Discovery Center is obviously a key component to the Preserve. It’s been part of the Preserve vision for decades. Clearly, it’s part of allowing people in the city who are paying for the Preserve to experience it and be a part of it. So it’s important that (A), it happen, and (B) that it happen as soon as possible consistent with doing it correctly and (C), that it be done correctly.”

I am calling for a public vote on any changes, including the DDC or a DCC-type facility, to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve costing more than $5 million or $1 more than the most expensive trailhead. And, to guarantee that such votes happen now and in the future I have taken the innovative step of proposing an amendment to the Scottsdale City Charter, which essentially serves as the city’s constitution. This is a matter bigger than the DDC. We need to ensure taxpayers and residents will always have the final say on major changes to our Preserve.

This would bind the Scottsdale City Council, now and forever, to put such issues to a public vote.

•If elected, will you support a public vote on the scope of the project, its construction and final cost to taxpayers?

I will make a public vote a priority. A Charter amendment is the only way to make sure the public is heard. My opponent, Bob Littlefield, opposes the reform. Bob seems to forget he would only have one vote on the city council. Bob seems to forget that just saying, “no” doesn’t stop the proposed Desert Discovery Center. Bob seems to forget that it is impossible for the city council to currently vote on the Desert Discovery Center because nothing formal has been submitted. And, Bob seems to forget that just saying, “no” won’t prevent future encroachments on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Bob wants to leave this decision in the hands of the politicians. I want to leave this decision in the hands of the people. I have submitted an amendment to the Scottsdale City Charter, which would need voter approval. This would delay any major project at the Preserve in its tracks until a public vote. The proposal does not apply to land acquisition and maintenance.

The issue of the Desert Discovery Center and major projects at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve need to be decided by voters.  Shouting “no!” at the top of your lungs may get attention, but it doesn’t get anything done. Our Preserve is too important a resource. Our residents deserve reforms not rhetoric.

Bob Littlefield

•Do you support the Desert Discovery Center? If so, how do you envision the project?

Bob Littlefield

Bob Littlefield

Eight years ago I supported what the DDC was originally intended to be, a small, low-impact desert interpretive center with no commercial activity and no nighttime events.

Sadly, in the intervening years the DDC concept was hijacked by special interests who now want to put a 30-acre “Desert Disneyland,” complete with commercial activity and nighttime events, right smack in the Gateway to our Preserve. And, to add insult to injury, they want Scottsdale taxpayers to pay for it! This is the DDC, which my opponent supports and which I oppose.

The Preserve Gateway was dedicated on May 2, 2009. It is what the DDC was originally intended to be and what I supported. The DDC I supported has been built; no more is necessary.

•If elected, will you support a public vote on the scope of the project, its construction and final cost to taxpayers?

Yes. When the citizens of Scottsdale voted to tax themselves almost a billion dollars to buy the Preserve, we were promised it would be a preserve, not, as my opponent calls it, a “park.” Even if the city council can legally put the DDC in the Preserve, I believe it would be wrong to do so without explicit consent from the voters.
My opponent also claims he supports a public vote on the DDC. Funny, he didn’t support a public vote in January of this year; then he was happy to have the council decide. Only after public outcry did he grudgingly support a non-binding vote to put the issue to the voters. You can be sure if he is re-elected to a final term he will flip again and there will be no public vote on the DDC.

The council race

Each candidate for city council agreed to respond to specific questions about the Discovery Center and their appetite for pushing for a public vote on the matter. This is what they had to say:

Suzanne Klapp

•Do you support the Desert Discovery Center? If so, how do you envision the project?

Suzanne Klapp

Suzanne Klapp

I support the planning for a Desert Discovery Center, which could be a significant amenity in the city to promote knowledge and understanding of our desert habitat among all residents and visitors. The planning has been ongoing for a number of years and became formalized this year with a proposal brought to the city by an outside organization, DDCS, in response to the city’s request for proposals.

We do not know yet the center’s possible architectural design, its size, the types of exhibits and programs it will encompass, and how it will be funded. That business plan recommendation will come to the city council as an agenda item next summer for discussion and a vote on whether to proceed with the DDC.

•If elected, will you support a public vote on the scope of the project, its construction and final cost to taxpayers?

When the business plan is finalized and presented to the council, I will support it if I agree with the recommendations in the plan. If I do not agree, then I would vote to not go further with the project. If the council votes to proceed with the center, I support a public vote if construction funding must come from the city’s capital projects budgeted funds.

Construction costs and initial operating costs should be funded by private donors and hotel bed tax receipts. Any ongoing operational funding needs would have to be generated by the operation of the Center.

Virginia Korte

•Do you support the Desert Discovery Center? If so, how do you envision the project?

Virginia Korte

Virginia Korte

As many citizens know, I have been involved with the Preserve efforts since the beginning. I chaired the first McDowell Mountain Task Force, was appointed as one of the first McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission members and served on the Advisory Board and Board of Directors of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. I was also active in all the “Save Our McDowells” political action committees to secure public support for the preserve during five public votes in nine years.

Since the mid 1990s, I have supported the DDC in concept. The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, a nonprofit organization, is contracted with the city of Scottsdale to determine the scope, size, programs, footprint, cost, partnerships and operational plan.  Their project plan will be submitted in the fall of 2017. I envision a project that meets the expectations of citizens in size, scope and operations.

•If elected, will you support a public vote on the scope of the project, its construction and final cost to taxpayers?

Yes, I support a public vote on the DDC, once the scope of the project, its cost and location are defined.

Guy Phillips

•Do you support the Desert Discovery Center? If so, how do you envision the project?

Guy Phillips

Guy Phillips

I do not support the DDC on the Preserve and will not support it anywhere else if it incurs public monies. The Musical Instrument Museum and Odysea Aquarium were both built with private funds.

•If elected, will you support a public vote on the scope of the project, its construction and final cost to taxpayers?

Yes. In fact, I have stated that if council approves the land ordinance revision to allow a DDC like structure I will file for a referendum.

 

Dan Schweiker

•Do you support the Desert Discovery Center? If so, how do you envision the project?

I strongly believe a Desert Discovery Center will serve as a key tourism attraction as well as a key cultural landmark for Scottsdale residents.

Dan Schweiker

Dan Schweiker

Right now, the size and cost have not been determined. That is what the project team will determine, along with the architect Vern Swaback. This architect is internationally renowned as an expert in blending buildings into their natural habitat, and I am confident he and the project team will come back with an appealing proposal for the council to consider. I am confident that they will come back with a reasonably sized and priced project for the Council to consider.

The DDC has been planned for three decades by numerous committees and studies. The Scottsdale CVB supports the DDC as an important part of our tourism industry. The direction of our elected officials has been to move this project forward at its planned location at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. As a councilmember, I would work to make the DDC a reality at the lowest cost possible to taxpayers and at a location that makes the most sense in terms of protecting Scottsdale’s character.

•If elected, will you support a public vote on the scope of the project, its construction and final cost to taxpayers?

I believe that council members are elected to represent the people and make the tough decisions as a council when it comes to issues like this. The city has identified several funding sources, including Preserve tax money. Residents should rely on their judgment regarding the best way to fund. Council members are elected to make these policy types of decisions with input from all of the interested parties.  If Preserve taxes are part of the chosen mix, the 2004 vote would allow their use.

If this would be run by a nonprofit entity, they would be responsible for fundraising and ensuring the long-term financial stability of the Center. However, as a councilperson, I would explore funding sources that do not harm Scottsdale residents and encourage DDC to raise private funds for the majority of revenue and ensure it is operated at a surplus.

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

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