Scottsdale City Council lays foundation for Desert Discovery Center

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)

The Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center may become more than a figment of imagination.

Scottsdale City Council Monday, Jan. 11, by a measure of 6 to 1, approved one 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.

Public dollars to be transferred will come from bed-tax remits assigned by city leaders to fund tourism efforts, city officials contend.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voted against the 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.

Last September, 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 Discover 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.

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.

The Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center Phase III Feasibility Committee in May 2013 unanimously approved the Gateway of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve as the ideal spot for an estimated 20- to 30-acre desert-appreciation venue.

The public hearing

Following hours of public testimony Scottsdale City Council agreed to begin the process of identifying what the Desert Discovery Center could become.

“This is an initiation of an amendment to an existing municipal-use master site plan that was approved when the gateway trailhead were approved in 2007. We are asking for three specific things,” said Dan Worth, Scottsdale public works director, at the launch of the public hearing.

“This is to continue on with the development of the project and how that project would work. We are here tonight to consider awarding the contract, establishing the budget and initiating the municipal site plan process.”

That amendment to the municipal site plan process, granted Jan. 11, makes way for a 30-acre development at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, records show.

Jim Lane

Jim Lane

“This is an exercise, a process that we go through, it is not always a black-and-white issue,” said Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane at the public hearing. “The tourism development funds are taxpayer resources they are not the industry’s. That is the taxpayer’s resource in every sense of the word — this has always been about money.”

In 2014, the Desert Discovery Center was earmarked as having a total cost of $74 million; however, proponents now say the recently approved municipal budget transfer will allow the nonprofit group to conduct outreach and develop schematics for their vision.

“I’m on board for this concept, but I don’t what to bury anyone along the way,” Mayor Lane said of the potential staunch financial commitments that would have to come from the private sector to make the venue viable.

“There an awful lot of unfortunate things that happen in government — communication is one of them,” he said. “Since it has been determine we can do whatever the heck we want outreach to the community is the best we can expect.”

That effort to reach out to the community is something Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips wants to see taken seriously.

Guy Phillips

Guy Phillips

“So we will have public outreach? Does that mean you will come back to us and say this is not feasible and it won’t work?” he asked of Christine Kovach, the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center Board of Directors chairman.

Ms. Kovach responded to Councilman Phillips’ line of questioning.

“If we did this whole public process and it turned out this was not a viable project, yeah, we are perfectly aware,” she said. “I think we need to give the public the opportunity.”

Councilman Phillips, who voted for the Jan. 11 measure, says tourism is already served handsomely within Scottsdale city limits and points out the city can build what it wants on the “People’s Preserve.”

“We don’t consider it your property, we consider it our property,” he said. “Future tourists will appreciate the fact we left it alone as a preserve. Tonight, we make it clear that although paid for by the residents, the city can do what it wants with the preserve.”

‘A can of worms’

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield pointed out concerns of certain uses to be allowed at or around the land identified as the McDowell Sonoaran Preserve.

Kathy Littlefield

Kathy Littlefield

“I think that is a problem and we are opening up a can of worms,” she said of allowing commercial operations anywhere near Preserve land. “Their purpose is to find a way, if they need to, to amend the master site plan to allow these activities.”

Kroy Ekblaw, the city’s preserve director, agrees a municipal site plan was approved in 2007 by city council but did not allow for the scope of operations now proposed at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

“The Gateway site itself did receive an approval in 2007 that had a site plan,” he told members of council at the public hearing. “It also included phase 2 that included the DDC concept at the time. The idea of the DDC has changed over time.”

Councilwoman Littlefield says the now approved contract and site plan amendment goes against what the preserve is supposed to represent.

“I do not and will not agree to fund a contract that pursues such a goal,” she said of her vote.  “It is highly likely, a pretty close to a certainly, we will be sued by our own residents — that is not good. I believe I am voting for the preserve by my vote tonight. I am against the DDC if it is not approved by the citizens.”

Speculations aside, Scottsdale Vice Mayor David Smith says the Jan. 11 measure is one to understand next steps and the viability of a desert appreciation venue at the Preserve.

“I want to respect the citizens goals for the preserve,” Vice Mayor Smith asserted.

“I also want to respect the citizens ability to pay for this project, but I still want to advance the scope of this project. I have been persuaded to fully understand the project and to do that you have to take it to the next step, which is the creation of architectural renderings.”

Vice Mayor Smith he says for this project to work it has to be true public-private partnership.

“In 18 months we can decide what the next step is,” he said.

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

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