Scottsdale forges ahead with McDowell Sonoran Preserve Desert Discovery Center

A graphic rendering of what the Scottsdale desert discovery center could look like, but leaders now say all plans are influx. (File graphic)

A graphic rendering of what the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center could look like, but leaders now say all plans are influx. (File graphic)

It appears the city of Scottsdale is forging ahead with plans to build a facility at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Scottsdale City Council, by a measure of 5 to 2, approved direction to staff Tuesday, Sept. 8 instructing 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.

Scottsdale council members Guy Phillips and Kathy Littlefield were the dissenting votes in the matter.

In March of this year, Scottsdale City Council OK’d the issuance of a request for qualifications for potential suitors for the proposed $74 million Sonoran Desert appreciation venue.

That request for qualified applicants primarily included finding a third-party, nonprofit entity to operate and construct the proposed $74 million desert-appreciation venue, which will serve as an elaborate museum and college research center geared toward teaching patrons the story of the Upper Sonoran Desert, city officials say.

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 city’s successful bid was $21.3 million – about $8 million of that will come from a Growing Smarter State Trust Land Acquisition Grant approved by the Arizona State Parks Board in September of last year.

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.

Old idea, new plan

“What has happened is that a group of citizens who have been involved with the DDC since its inception have put together and pooled their own money to bring back alive the concept of the DDC,” said Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte in a Sept. 9 phone interview.

Virginia Korte

Virginia Korte

“What they have responded to is to have the right to do the research and work with the appropriate people to put together a new perspective of the desert discovery center.”

Councilwoman Korte, who made the initial motion to move forward with the DDC effort, says the $74 million price tag may not be feasible and this effort will reinvent what is practical for a desert appreciation venue.

“The old numbers are a moot issue,” she said. “All of those designs are just old news — that is seven to 10 years old news now. We are moving forward on what is going to work and what is going to make sense.”

Councilwoman Korte says negotiations are now ongoing.

“We all know that this project needs another phase and to bring up to date the concept of what will make the venue world class and a point of pride for Scottsdale,” she said. “We have directed staff to negotiate with the group to negotiate points of the contract to better realize this vision and make it tangible.”

Scottsdale City Engineer Derek Earle presented to council the results of the RFQ process, which garnered one respondent.

“The group has identified itself as a group of community leaders that have been involved in supporting the preserve and the desert discovery center for several years,” he said in a Sept. 9 written response to e-mailed questions.

“This was not a bid in terms of asking for a price quote with the city selecting the lowest price. Under the request for qualifications process, the city puts out an open solicitation for professional consultants to provide a specific set of services for a project. Those who are interested in responding provide a summary of their qualifications to provide those services in a formal response.”

To formulate a response and recommendation to Scottsdale City Council, Mr. Earle points out city leaders created a criteria of evaluation panel comprised of the following members:

  • Derek Earle, city engineer
  • Kroy Ekblaw, preserve director
  • Steve Geiogamah, tourism development manager
  • Danielle Casey, economic development director
  • Gary Meyer, senior capital project manager

Mr. Earle says that panel of senior city staff devised a score from a series of eight report criteria totaling 1,000 points.

“The average score graded by the selection panel was 895 meaning that the respondent gained 89.5 percent of the possible points,” Mr. Earle says. “Whether that is a ‘good’ score is subjective, but the respondent met all of the requirements of the solicitation.”

The people’s preserve

Although she is hesitant to say anything is wrong with the recently completed RFQ process, Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield says something isn’t sitting right with her in regard to that process.

Kathy Littlefield

Kathy Littlefield

“The problem I have is I am not against the concept of having a DDC,” she said in a Sept. 9 phone interview. “But how they (city staff) have gone about this is a real problem to me.”

Scottsdale voters in 1995 and 2004 approved sales tax measures allowing the municipality to acquire cash ultimately to purchase and preserve lands now known as the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Scottsdale officials say preserving these lands protects the main ridgeline of the McDowell Mountains and expands the land area of an important wildlife corridor connected to nearly three million acres of Tonto National Forest. The preserve land includes the majority of ridgeline in the southern McDowell Mountains.

Councilwoman Littlefield says the residents of Scottsdale ought to be considered before elected leaders sign-off on encroachment of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

“The preserve is a very special municipal asset we have been buying for many years,” she said. “To keep it preserved and to keep it special, unique and available for those who want to learn. The DDC is now coming along and they want to carve out land within the preserve to build a building on it and allow commercial uses and basically violated the promise the citizens have kept.”

Councilwoman Littlefield says the preserve is the people’s preserve — not the Scottsdale City Council’s preserve.

“We know exactly what they want to build there,” she pointed out. “It is pretty complete; it is not evil, it is just not what the citizens were promised. We have quite literally hundreds of volunteers at the preserve and they basically have been totally ignored in this process. I think they need to be consulted and that their input should be considered.”

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

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