Littlefield: Desert Discovery Center update offered nothing new

On Tuesday night, the Scottsdale City Council heard an “update” on a study regarding the Desert Discovery Center, or DDC.

Kathy Littlefield

The group doing the study, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc., wants to build a tourist attraction/event center inside our McDowell Sonoran Preserve at the main Preserve entrance, the Gateway.

The presentation was very disappointing: nothing new was learned, nothing new was discussed. Preserve advocates are still outraged at this potential intrusion of commercial development into the Preserve.

And money — lots and lots of it — will still need to be spent.

It is estimated the DDC will cost a minimum of $74 million of taxpayers’ money. DDCS did not say that has changed. In fact, they gave no updated estimates of cost. To date, DDCS has raised under $1M in private donations. The only place I know where the rest of the money could be found is the Preserve Fund, itself. The only way that funding source could be used to pay for the DDC is if it is built inside the Preserve boundary, and citizens continue to pay into the fund with their taxes.

Citizens voted in five different public votes to tax themselves through an increase in sales taxes to raise money to buy the Preserve land and to protect both the plants and the animals that live there. To assure people that the money would be used properly, the Preserve Ordinance was created specifically to protect the Preserve from development. The ordinance specifies in great detail the uses to which the land can be put — and the uses to which it cannot be put.

Without the ordinance, our Preserve is merely 30,000 acres of open space. For example, as per the ordinance the Preserve opens at dawn and closes at dusk; thus, no human activity is allowed in the Preserve at night.

This protects the animals that must migrate at night to find food and water to survive. Plants — alive or dead — cannot be moved or taken from the Preserve; even the rocks, stones and dirt must stay where they are in order to preserve the natural lay of the land. These very specific stipulations are why we needed a separate public vote to allow the building of the trails and Trailheads: they are exceptions to the ordinance allowed only by the vote of the people of Scottsdale. And, you, the people of Scottsdale, agreed.

To date we have purchased over 30,000 acres of Preserve land.

It is indeed a tremendous accomplishment of our citizens. I know of no other city of our size that has done such a feat. Stewards — citizen volunteers — studied and learned about the desert so they could teach visitors about the desert, answer their questions and guide them on hikes. They have become experts on our desert Preserve and the life within it.

Last year the city council authorized (over my objections) a $1.7 million contract to the DDCS to conduct a study on the creation of a Desert Discovery Center.

Last Fall they were looking to blade over about 30 acres of land, build 15 Ramada-like structures in which visitors can learn about the desert, eat at a restaurant, consume alcohol, buy gifts at a gift shop, expand an amphitheater for nighttime concerts, etc. All of these are currently illegal per the Preserve Ordinance.

The only change to these plans that the council heard last night was that the administrative offices would be moved off-site. Originally the requested land was for 30 acres. They did not say how much Preserve land that change would save from bulldozing.  I oppose putting the Desert Discovery Center (or any other commercial development) in the Preserve. I also oppose using the Preserve fund to pay for the DDC.

I would prefer we use any money left over in the Preserve fund to pay off the bonds used to purchase the Preserve land, stop the tax early and return the balance of the money to the citizens with our thanks. Another good use for some of that money would be to create an annuity to pay for maintenance and upkeep of the Preserve so we will not have to ask citizens for any additional funds.

However, I also believe this is not my decision to make –– nor is it the council’s. As we did before, we should take this to our citizens in a binding vote, ask them if they want to build a Desert Discovery within the Preserve boundaries at the Gateway, or if they would rather stop the tax early.

We confidently asked them for their money to buy the land; we should now ask them if they are willing to pay for the Desert Discovery Center to be built inside the Preserve. It is, after all, the People’s Preserve!

Editor’s note: Ms. Littlefield is a member of Scottsdale City Council

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