Scottsdale moves forward with Desert Discovery Center RFQ

A view of what the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center could look like. (File photo)

A view of what the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center could look like. (File photo)

Scottsdale City Council has given city staff the OK to begin seeking potential suitors for a proposed $74 million desert discovery center now identified to be at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Scottsdale City Council held a March 24 work session on the topic of next steps concerning the desert discovery center at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd. Those next steps primarily include finding a third-party, nonprofit entity to operate and construct the desert-appreciation venue.

The center will serve as an elaborate museum and college research center geared toward teaching patrons the story of the Upper Sonoran Desert, proponents 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.

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A view of what the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center could look like. (File photo)

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.

Most recently, Scottsdale acquired 2,365 acres of land at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve at a state land auction held Nov. 19, 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 $74 million, 20- to 30-acre desert-appreciation venue.

Scottsdale City Council’s recent direction is in tune with the feasibility committee’s recommendations.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield says she is keeping a close eye on what ultimately gets built — simply because it is to be built on land encroaching on the preserve.

“We are not supposed to hinder or interfere with the natural vegetation, wildlife and movement (of those animals) and that is important,” she said of city ordinances meant to protect the preserve in a March 25 phone interview.

“If you read the ordinance, some of the items they want to put in the preserve are not allowed. The ordinance specifically says from dawn to dusk because that is when the animals migrate. (The new center) does violate some of the rules what we can and cannot do at the preserve.”

Councilwoman Littlefield points out city ordinances forbid the consumption of alcohol and any commercial activity on the preserve.

“There are lots of things the desert discovery center is looking at doing to sustain, like a restaurant or selling knick-knacks in the lobby, and I understand that, but they are not allowed,” she said.

“How do we reconcile that? Once you break the ordinance, by saying, ‘well just this once we are going to do it,’ it’s not that long until somebody comes along and wants to this or that. It’s hard to say, ‘no,’ when you have already said, ‘yes.’”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte says the project is still in the conceptual stage so it’s no use worrying yet about the finished project.

“We have a concept in front of us and until we get a feel for the kind of money we can raise from the private sector, I don’t think anyone can say, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any of the uses until we know better what is proposed,” she said in a March 25 phone interview. “It really is still in conceptual form.”

Councilwoman Korte says she is looking for some bright ideas form the private sector through the RFQ process.

“I personally am open to a parade of innovative ideas to make this center iconic and internationally known, but also to make is sustainable and a point of pride for Scottsdale.”

But that point of pride has a hefty price tag, Councilwoman Littlefield explains.

“We don’t have $59 million dollars just sitting around,” she said pointing out the city has about $23 million in available bed-tax dollars designated for tourism uses within city limits, of which $15 million could be used for the DDC this fiscal year.

“That is going to be a major consideration, but let’s let people come up with some brilliant ideas. Let’s see what the RFQ brings. There are a lot of good things here that would add a great deal to local tourism, but there are problems and they were not ironed out last night.”

Councilwoman Korte says she believes announcing a formal location for the DDC is going to get attention and may find solutions to lingering concerns.

“The city council gave clear direction to staff to reissue the request for qualifications with the clear designation of the location at the Gateway,” she said.

“I believe that is an important factor because it illustrates the commitment by a city to move forward with this whole concept of the desert discovery center.”

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

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