The Desert Discovery Center is supported by some as a place to educate residents and visitors on the Sonoran Desert. Among critics’ concerns are allowing the development in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

A public vote has not been ruled out but has not been set, either.

Much-anticipated details on the controversial Desert Discovery Center should be available at the end of July. But activists already are threatening to sue the city over the project.

Two opposition groups, NoDDC and Protect Our Preserve, filed a notice of claim, which is often the precursor to a lawsuit, with Scottsdale in late May to push for a public vote on the center.

A public vote has not been ruled out. Mayor Jim Lane, during his State of the City address in February, said a public vote should follow the release of the project’s details.

The Desert Discovery Center, referred to as the DDC, is supported by some as a place to educate residents and visitors on the Sonoran Desert. Among critics’ concerns are allowing the development in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The center is proposed just inside the preserve border on the east side of Thompson Peak Parkway just more than a half-mile north of Bell Road, near the Windgate Ranch neighborhood. 

The proposed multi-million project has gone through numerous conceptual iterations through the years. The City Council contracted with a non-profit group, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc., to create a plan with construction details, estimated cost and possible funding sources. Those details will be filed with the city July 31, with outreach to the public in August.


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Discovery Center details coming soon

Former Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana, who is executive director of Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, said the group plans to hold numerous public meetings in August to share the DDC proposal and gather more feedback.

The group also held meetings to gain public input on the plan throughout 2016.

“We’re hoping we bring something perfect because we’ve worked so hard and long, but that’s wishful thinking and we know there will be areas for improvement,” she said. “I think people will be impressed by how well we listened to the community and the significant changes we made.”

The council is tentatively scheduled to discuss the proposal in a work-study session in late September or early October.

What will the Scottsdale council do?

Whether to take the DDC to the ballot is presumably a political decision. City Attorney Bruce Washburn has said Scottsdale has authority to decide what gets built in the preserve.

So where do council members stand?

“If I were a betting man, I’d bet we’d have to go to the voters for it,” Councilman David Smith said.

The mayor recently reiterated his support for putting the project in the public’s hands if the plans submitted next month meet city requirements.

“I’ve been an advocate for the longest time for a public vote, particularly because of the anger and the angst that has been expressed on this subject,” he told The Republic.

Councilman Guy Phillips, who did not respond to a request for comment, has favored a public vote. He’s been a vocal opponent to the project.

Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield said in an email to The Republic that she supports a public vote because taxpayer money has been used to research the project and because it’s “the people’s preserve.”

“If they do (approve it), fine. If they do not, then we should stop considering it or spending more tax dollars on it,” Littlefield said.

Councilwoman Linda Milhaven said the project isn’t referable to a public vote before all the details are available. She couldn’t be reached for clarification on whether she’d favor a public vote once those details are released.

Milhaven did say she anticipates she’ll support the project, although couldn’t say for certain until seeing the updated plans. 

“I understand people look at the 2010 plan and object to that,” Milhaven said, referring to a feasibility study that had suggested a $74 million center sprawling over 30 acres of preserve land.

“I don’t want the 2010 plan,” Milhaven said. “If it comes out the way I’m expecting — smaller, less intrusive, educational experience with a really small footprint on the desert — I’d be excited to support it.”

Councilwoman Virginia Korte has supported the DDC in the past and, in a recent email to The Republic, said it should go to a public vote if it uses public funds.

Vice Mayor Suzanne Klapp did not respond to a request for comment.

Groups push for public vote

Jason Alexander, one of the DDC opponents that filed the notice of claim, said opponents also are collecting signatures for a citizen’s initiative to get it on the ballot.

He said they have about 7,000 of the 23,908 petition signatures required get it on the 2018 ballot.

“We’re not trying to disrupt things, we’re just trying to get this to a public vote,” Alexander said. “We are not going down without swinging.”

Activist Mike Norton said the DDC should go to a public vote because residents never approved such a center — they approved tax hikes for preservation.

In 1995, Scottsdale residents approved a sales-tax for the city to preserve land in what is now the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The voters in 2004 approved additional sales taxes for land acquisition.

The preserve now spans more than 30,000 acres. 

“I voted several times to be taxed,” Norton said. “I voted to establish the preserve.”

They view the proposed center as out of step with those votes.

“It is so fundamentally against what people voted for that we have to bring it to a public vote,” Alexander said. 

Scottsdale has 60 days to respond to a notice of claim once filed.

“The city has not yet determined its response to this claim,” city spokesman Kelly Corsette said in a statement. “However, the city generally tends to favor local autonomy, which would include leaving this kind of decision to the city’s elected representatives (and voters) rather than to the courts.”

Pros and cons to project

For Norton, his concerns extend beyond construction of the DDC. He’s worried about how the city would fund it.

“Just look at what is fiscally prudent for this city,” he said. “The worst thing we can possibly do is use that $74 million to build a convention center because we will have to subsidize that convention center.”

Howard Myers, who is working with Alexander and Norton, said they’ve proposed alternate sites to the council — one at the northeast corner of Bell Road and Thompson Peak Parkway, the other at 94th Street and Bell Road, just north of WestWorld.

The Thompson Peak Parkway location is still in the preserve, but farther from most of the trails, Myers said.

Myers said they’re all in favor of educating the public on the preserve, but they don’t want that to come at the expense of nature.

“They’re trying to educate people about the thing they’re destroying,” he said.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has challenged some of the concerns, saying: 

  • At least 10 percent of the DDC’s funding will be private contributions.
  • Bed taxes, general funds or bonds could also fund the DDC. Preserve funds could also fund it and wouldn’t need a tax increase because they have already been approved by voters.
  • The DDC wouldn’t violate the Preserve Ordinance because the city could use it to educate visitors about the preserve.
  • A 1993 City Council report to establish the preserve included an educational center.


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