Current Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center plan serves special interests — not preservation efforts

This graphic illustrates the lineage of cost estimates for the proposed Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center. (Submitted graphic)

This graphic illustrates the lineage of cost estimates for the proposed Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center. (Submitted graphic)

Several members of Scottsdale City Council along with their contractor Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale are planning to build a massive tourist attraction at the Gateway Trailhead — the Desert Discovery Center. The jumping off point for public meetings on the DDC is a 30-acre, $74 million facility that will be bigger than the Cardinals home at Glendale Stadium.

Jason Alexander

Jason Alexander

Special Interests and DDCS staff have been vigorously spreading a false narrative about this project — that it has been planned for 25 years at the Gateway location. It is true that the DDC as an idea has been around since the early 90s. The initial, small scope was twice implemented already as 1) the Florence Ely Nelson Desert Park and 2) the current amenities at the Gateway Trailhead.

These amenities include the wonderful, handicapped-accessible Bajada Nature Trail complete with signage and educational content. There are fantastic, free events almost every week at Gateway, presented by the Stewards of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and incredible organizations such as the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.

The DDC project morphed from its humble scope to its massive bloat in 2008, as a result of a small, invite-only committee that was dominated by current City Council members Virginia Korte and Linda Milhaven, along with special interest representatives such as Melinda Gullick of DMB development and Frank Jacobson of the Scottsdale Cultural Council.

This backroom committee led directly to the 2010 Swaback plan of 30 acres, $74 million that has been the basis of every current discussion of the DDC. While we don’t know exactly what the latest metastasis of this project will be, the City Council led by Korte, Milhaven and Jim Lane just voted to give another $500,000 to the very same Swaback Partners to perform yet another study. It bears repeating that Korte and Milhaven were part of a select group that drove the current scope — we believe they are being completely disingenuous when they claim the scope is undetermined. We believe, based on the history of this project, it will be even bigger this time around.

The notion that this has always been planned for Gateway is also false. Until the late 90s, the DDC was planned for Pinnacle Peak Park. It was moved, quietly, by the Tourism Development Commission in 1997. It was approved to be at Gateway in 2007 by the City Council in a consent agenda item — not a public vote or public vetting of the concept.

DDCS and other supporters claim the Gateway is a perfect site, based on a 2013 site analysis conducted by, Swaback Partners, again. However, a cursory reading of this study shows that all the site evaluation criteria were based on the Gateway’s attributes. At times the document defies common sense, such as when it claims the Gateway would be a better location for meetings versus the city’s site along Bell Road at Westworld that has over 1 million visitors a year.

The real reason DDC supporters are so insistent on building at the Gateway is there is an anticipated $30 million surplus in the Preserve Fund, and a $30 million annuity to be set aside for maintenance of the Preserve’s trails and trailheads. Korte, Milhaven, Lane, and their special interest friends want to sweep this money into the DDC and away from the intent of the voters. The DDC will be a massive commercial endeavor. It will violate the Preserve ordinance, the Preserve mission, the nature of the Gateway facility, and the character of the surrounding neighborhoods. Proof of this plan is found in DDCS’ own statement of qualifications, presented by DDCS to the city staff in obtaining their no-bid contract to manage the DDC project in the Spring of 2015.

“The DDC will require funding sources beyond admission fees, activity/event charges and memberships in order to reach financial self-sufficiency. Proceeds from food service retail, facility rentals and other sources, plus donations and grants all are vital for success. These must be allowed at the DDC,” page 13 of the document states.

“Like virtually every other similar facility, in order to be self-sufficient the DDC must offer a mixture of revenue-generating options to supplement entrance fees, memberships and donations. These include retail (a DDC shop and retail website), food service (a cafe or restaurant serving alcohol), rental space for meetings and special events including catering and other revenue-generating facilities and activities, such as fee-based educational offerings for children and adults,” page 14 of the document states.

DDCS acknowledges that they cannot avoid operating at a loss without being commercial. However, even with this commercial aspect baked into the plan, DDCS believes they will lose money for the first five years. Their strategy is to rely on city funds.

“Stabilization would occur in year four, with a range of three to five years. During this stabilization period … the assurance of a City ‘safety net’ for the DDC during this five-year transition period will make it easier,” page 14 states.

The proposed commercial facilities add almost 20 percent to the physical footprint and construction costs of the DDC. They require many employees and specialized services, which will dramatically inflate operational costs. The untenable finances and massive commercial nature of this project force it to be even more commercial.

The DDCS is under pressure to turn a profit via commercialism, yet relies on city funds and handouts to cover operating expenses. They will require a change to the Preserve ordinance allowing commercialism. Such an ordinance change will open a Pandora’s Box for commercialism across the Preserve. DDCS Executive Director Sam Campana’s prior job before promoting this tourist attraction was operating a local franchise of Pink Jeep Tours.

We think Pink Jeeps throttling across the desert will have a serious negative impact on local home values.

There has not yet been a proven economic impact analysis yet showing positive effects of this DDC on city revenue — we have only heard cheerleading from those in the tourism and development industries. However, a study performed by Places Consulting for the Scottsdale Hospitality and Tourism Industry in 2013 raised significant concerns about the DDC.

Criticisms included: unrealistic income expectations, lack of identified funding sources, using bed tax dollars at the expense of other needs, no attempt to estimate how many new tourists this facility would bring in, and competition from facilities like the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

There are clear precedents for this type of public-private operation being a massive money-loser for the taxpayers: the Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Museum of the West. Members of DDCS’ leadership have long ties to these organizations, and city staff constantly refers to these organizations as models for the current project.

The current plan of $74 million will cost each and every citizen in Scottsdale $300 to build, and countless more to operate. Scottsdale’s per capita debt it the highest of all cities in the Valley thanks to Lane’s administration. Again, we fear the negative impact to home values across the city.

Council members Korte, Milhaven, Lane, Klapp and Smith have proven themselves time and again to listen to developers and special interests above the voters. Simply review their voting history regarding so many recent zoning exemptions, the light rail, Artisan Market, developers, the Cultural Council: we believe you can fully predict their vote on the DDC.

We urge everyone opposed to the DDC to examine their voting history, watch upcoming City Council meetings, and make your voices heard during the November election.

Editor’s note: Mr. Alexander is part of No DDC, a grassroots organization opposing the project, and can be reached at info@noddc.org

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