Heath: Desert EDGE ought to be built to illustrate community dedication to Preserve

Why not a museum on the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve?

Larry Heath

Since the dawn of modern civilization, one of the key ingredients to the betterment of the collective human experience is the municipal funded development of the arts and museums. I can’t imagine Paris without the Louver, Washington D.C. without The Smithsonian, or Chicago without its array of museums and observatories at the edge of Lake Michigan.

If ever there was a museum that needs to be added to Scottsdale’s impressive lineup, it’s an icing-on-the-cake masterpiece at the edge of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. For as long as anyone can remember, visitors from around the world have flocked to Arizona to marvel at our many natural wonders. This begs the question, where do visitors to Scottsdale turn to today to learn about the Sonoran Desert’s unique ecosystems systems? Ask their Uber driver?

For the Preserve to reach its full potential, and for the betterment of the greater community, what Scottsdale needs most is an airconditioned visitor-center with grand viewing windows, interactive exhibits and numerous other amenities. Let’s face it, most tourists who go to the Grand Canyon, look over the edge, go back to the village, have a bite and then depart completely satisfied. It’s the American way.

You can’t do that at the Preserve.

Bike, hike, ride your horse or rock climb — that’s all its currently designed for, and tail logs show that most of the visitors come from north Scottsdale. Intentional or not, since the Preserve’s inception, its presence has been muted. Nearly all the trailheads are hidden off the beaten path, and as a result, the Preserve doesn’t do anything to draw attention to itself.

It’s easy to imagine that most tourists who visit metro Phoenix don’t even know it’s there. It’s the best kept secret in Scottsdale. Therein lies why we need a museum, and why it needs to be at the gateway to the Preserve. Because that’s where you put visitor-centers like this — on the desert’s edge with an unchanging backdrop. The opponents should know that, especially if they are affiliated with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, as it seems that many might be.

They should also recall that the property in question, at the northeast corner of Bell Road and Thomson Peak Road, was planned for a residential development until that the city of Scottsdale paid $82 million to buy the property from a home builder who bought it in a State Land Department auction.

If you Google “Scottsdale wrestles with land deals gone bad” and scroll down to the subheading “Toll Brothers,” you’ll find open references dating back to 2008 indicating that the City Council envisioned “a multimillion-dollar Desert Discovery Center” for the site.

If anyone moved the goal posts for this plan, it’s not the city.

I’m not sure what happened between then and now, but Scottsdale went from a spirit of collaboration surrounding the creation of the Preserve to a territorial tug-of-war over who gets to preside over its future — the city or an overbearing group of opponents with an affinity for political signs and misleading arguments.
Things got particularly convoluted when the ballot language came out, because it doesn’t mention the museum.

The way I read Proposition 420, nothing more can be developed on the Preserve including new trails, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that interpretation. So, why are the preserve-our-preserve folks arguing that we need to mummify the Preserve, and why are they asserting it now? From recent media reports, they appear to be suggesting that the city of Scottsdale can’t be trusted to oversee the future of the Preserve, because they have been back-room dealing with fat cats who have grand plans to commercialize it. Really?

That’s bold talk indeed, and it feels like a sneak attack as well, because funding for a museum has been in Scottsdale’s annual budget for the past five years. So, let’s unpack it a bit. Here are the core groups who that the city of Scottsdale invited to a series of museum strategic planning meetings starting in early 2016, The Desert Discovery Board of Directors (yes, there’s a board), The Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (now Experience Scottsdale), The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and Arizona State University.

ASU’s involvement is particularly inspiring, because they are offering to establish and staff a one-of-a-kind visitor-center experience and research institute at the planned museum that will be focused on innovative study of deserts (the Global Drylands Institute). Are these the carpet baggers the anti-museum folks are warning us about?

It feels more like a provincial skirmish to me, because I guarantee you, just as the sun rises every morning over the McDowell Mountains onto north Scottsdale, at the core of this hubbub are concerns about traffic. And those concern are about a mile radius wide and equally shallow. Why else would the anti-museum folks concede that they support the concept of a desert museum, but they want it to go elsewhere?

It sounds like they fear it might become a roaring success. To that end, let’s assume they drive off the museum before it gets publicly vetted, and it lands in the shadows of the Glendale hockey arena. Remind us again how that benefits the city of Scottsdale and the taxpayers who financially supported their plans that have long included a museum?

No matter what, before you vote, I encourage you to dig deeper into the matter. There’s some very helpful information on the city of Scottsdale website including the “Museum Preliminary Strategic Planning Report.” If you follow it closely, you can readily deduce which group at the planning table withheld their support.

As a community, we need more time to collectively scrutinize the Preserve’s future and not fall victim to a misleading and questionably timed outcry to raise the Preserve’s drawbridge. To that end, I encourage you to vote NO on Prop 420. If you vote otherwise, you’re keeping Scottsdale from becoming the rightful home of a one-of-a-kind world-class museum and the rich international recognition that would most certainly follow.

Mr. Heath is a resident of Scottsdale

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