Desert EDGE’s business plan is partly modeled after the Museum of the West’s — so how has the museum performed?
Eighteen months after the Scottsdale City Council tasked the non-profit Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale with developing a design and business plan for the much-debated but little-detailed desert attraction, elected leaders got their say this week.
The sharpest debate over the controversial project is whether to send it to a public vote.
But much of the talk also revolved around finances for the $61.2 million center, now called Desert EDGE — what city funds might be used to build it, and whether city funds would be needed to operate it.
The council directed staff members to comb through the finances and return with their findings Nov. 6.
The full council agreed that Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc. had met all the requirements of its contract to create the plan.
Councilman David Smith called the proposal a “great start” that has “given definition to what was a previously ambiguous project.”
Here’s what to know about the proposal:
What is Desert EDGE?
Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its proposal for the desert attraction in the city’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve on July 31. For the better part of two months, the proposal has made its way through community forums and city commissions, gaining support from some and opposition from others.
Past conceptual designs offered grandiose plans sprawled across a portion of a 30-acre area, but the current more detailed plan is on 5.34 acres near the preserve’s Gateway Trailhead.
Councilwoman Linda Milhaven on Tuesday said the city’s best decision was to move forward with the EDGE. “By teaching our children and future generations what makes the preserve so special, we will ensure its sustainability,” she said.
The plan proposes a 47,586-square-foot facility that would be minimally visible from the road and surrounding neighborhoods. There would be 544 spaces at Gateway and 250 more at an off-site location that would shuttle patrons.
The designs by Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners envisage eight indoor and outdoor pavilions, each with a unique theme drawn from the landscape. The sections would be tied together by interpretive courtyards, where patrons could meet educators, scientists and storytellers.
The center would boast virtual-reality features and an immersive theater to experience the desert during different seasons.
“It is not a building. We look at this as a tool … one can use to really understand the beauty of the desert,” architect John Sather told the council.
Renderings for the Desert Discovery Center, now Desert EDGE, show a smaller footprint and reduced cost.
Who would own Desert EDGE?
The city would own the center and Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale would operate it.
Who would pay to build it?
The project calls for no new taxes, although it would heavily lean on the city’s bed and preserve taxes.
The plan calls for the city to pay the bulk of the $61.2 million building costs, with Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale raising 10 percent in private donations.
The city’s Tourism Development Commission recommends providing $16 million toward construction, paying $1.2 million annually for the borrowing over 20 years with the bed tax that visitors to Scottsdale hotels pay.
The remaining balance, nearly $40 million as the project now stands, could come from the preserve tax — a voter-approved sales tax the city has used largely to acquire preserve land.
“I’m concerned about how much preserve tax is available for this project,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Klapp said.
Smith said $93 million is conservatively estimated to be available through the life of the preserve tax, which sunsets in 2034. He notes that would drop closer to $57 million if the council discontinues the preserve portion of the city’s tax on food, which some have sought.
From there, $30 million would need to be set aside in the endowment for the preserve, leaving closer to $27 million not allocated, Klapp said. If Desert EDGE’s construction cost exceeds that, it would need to come from the bed tax, or the project would need to be scaled back, she said, noting her preference for the latter.
“We don’t want to suck all these funds dry,” Klapp said.
Councilman Guy Phillips also balked at the price. “The cost is taking too much from the preserve and … too much from (the tourism commission),” he said.
How much would the EDGE cost to operate?
Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale expects operating costs of $6.3 million annually, covered by such revenue as admission costs, memberships, retail and cafe sales and donations. The non-profit could seek $758,000 annually from the city for the first five years of operation, the plan shows.
Mayor Jim Lane questioned how the city would fund that and noted “there’s an element of risk” in the center’s fundraising and grant revenues as they aren’t guaranteed.
Desert Discovery Center leaders said a projected deficit was the norm for a non-profit, public-service operation such as the EDGE.
The group said the city’s portion of the operating costs would likely come from the bed sales tax, bringing more confusion to the council on how many “slices” the tourism commission would commit to the project.
Klapp also questioned the 385,000 projected visitors a year, calling the estimate “too hopeful” and ticket prices too low.
Milhaven suggested staff give a rigorous look at construction costs and the business plan. She also pressed Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale to explore the idea of phasing in the project to “create more options.”
Councilwoman Virginia Korte suggested staff consider conducting a study to explore the economic impacts of building the center and not building it.
The council directed staff to return with a more detailed look at the finances and the potential study.
What about partnership with ASU?
The vice mayor questioned why taxpayer money would be spent for Arizona State University’s portion of the center. The EDGE proposal touts a partnership with ASU’s Global Drylands Institue.
The idea is for it to become a research anchor that would include a working lab, ASU researchers, student and scholar participants, along with content for exhibits and programs
“I am concerned about where the money is coming from,” Klapp said, gaining agreement from Lane, who proposed that other funds be obtained to build the university’s headquarters.
ASU hasn’t committed ongoing funding, but it has put up about $26,000 and could pay for millions of dollars in researchers, equipment and studies, Wellington “Duke” Reiter, senior adviser to ASU President Michael Crow, told the council.
Would alcohol be served or events held at the center?
The center will have a common area open during Desert EDGE hours that will not require an admission fee.
This would include a cafe that may open earlier than the center during milder weather with a “simple offering of locally-sourced food and beverages,” according to the business plan. It would include a small selection of craft beers and wines that a vendor would operate so no liquor license would need to be acquired.
The common area would include a store with items to meet guests’ needs and complement Desert EDGE’s and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve’s missions.
No food and drinks, with the exception of water, would be allowed elsewhere in the center.
Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale said events inside the center for educational programs such as symposiums, science presentations, chapter meetings for environmental groups and EDGE-sponsored fundraising would require no rental fee. Others would have to pay.
Events would conclude by 9 p.m., allowing the premises to be cleaned and vacated by 10 p.m. Event guests would be limited to the EDGE and not allowed access to the preserve. No weddings would be allowed.
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