By Scottsdale City Councilman David Smith
During the recent Council work study session on the Desert EDGE project, I summarized the history of events that has led to locating a Discovery Center in the preserve, at the Gateway on Thompson Peak Parkway. A few listeners asked me to share that chronology. It’s a long history, so hold your seats!
In 1994 – before there was a preserve tax or a preserve! – the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission (MSPC) retained a local research firm, Nelson, Robb, Duval and DeMenna to conduct a statistically reliable telephone survey of Scottsdale registered voters to determine whether they supported land preservation.
The poll questions made it clear the City’s goals were broader than just acquiring land. Each poll participant was also told, “The following are a list of features that are under study for inclusion in the preserve” and asked to rank the importance of each feature. For “Desert museums and education centers”, 69.5% answered “very important” or “somewhat important;” 30.5% answered “not very important” or “don’t know.”
The poll results guided City Council in structuring the May 23, 1995 Ballot Proposition 400 seeking voter approval of a 0.20% temporary and dedicated preserve sales tax. That proposition was approved almost 2 to 1.
Following the 1995, the MSPC began studying where preserve assets should be built to enhance public entry to and enjoyment of the preserve. By March 1999, they had published their McDowell Sonoran Preserve Access Areas Report identifying several access points.
There should be a single Gateway, they said, as the focal point for educational facilities as well as a a broad array of public amenities – a visitor center, interpretative or educational centers, museum facilities, displays, an amphitheater, concessions and areas to accommodate large user groups. Many of those visions of 20 years ago survive today as features of the proposed Desert EDGE at the Gateway.
About this same time, 1998, homes were being constructed on Bell Road in the McDowell Mountain Ranch community, across from the southern boundary of the proposed Gateway.
In 2004, voters were asked to increase the preserve tax again (this time by 0.15%) and allow the revenues to be used for land “…and improvements thereto.”
That vote prompted Council to begin defining potential improvements. City Council’s first action was to authorize a “Municipal Use Master Site Plan” (MUMSP, for short) for the Gateway – the city equivalent of a developer’s site plan.
In February 2006, staff held an open house to explain Council’s future plans for the Gateway. Staff shared a site plan map identifying Phase I as the Gateway Access and Phase II as a Desert Discovery Center, including an interpretive center, support offices, café with outdoor dining terrace and a 400-seat outdoor amphitheater.
On September 18, 2007, based on the 2006 public outreach, Council approved the MUMSP for the Gateway with the site plan unchanged. The accompanying Council Report described a Desert Discovery Center “…that will serve as the primary educational facility [including] a small café in conjunction with the Center…[as well as]…an outdoor amphitheater as part of the Desert Discovery Center…used in conjunction with educational and support activities for the Center.” The description even anticipated “…there will be limited evening activity at the Desert Discovery Center.” Mayor Mary Manross and Councilmembers Betty Drake, Wayne Ecton, Jim Lane, Bob Littlefield and Ron McCullagh all voted for the Gateway site plan.
Starting in 2007, homes began to be constructed on the west side of Thompson Peak Parkway, across from the proposed Gateway and Desert Discovery Center.
On October 11, 2011, Council approved the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Areas Report. The 1999 Report had been updated in 2010, but still provided there would only be one Gateway and that its location would be the focal point for educational facilities and programs and include a broad array of public amenities such as a visitor center, interpretative or educational centers, museum facilities, displays, an amphitheater, concessions and areas to accommodate corporate picnics and other large user groups. The Report was adopted unanimously by Mayor Jim Lane and councilmembers Milhaven, Borowsky, Klapp, Bob Littlefield, McCullagh and Robbins.
Before and after 2011, several versions of a Discovery Center were developed, leading to a Council decision in early 2016 to contract for a definitive study of what a Discovery Center should be. For more than twenty years, Scottsdale’s elected and appointed representatives had been guided by the wishes of Scottsdale citizens; respecting this history, Council stipulated the design be sited at the already approved site north of the Gateway trailhead.
Still, the contractor, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale (DDCS), was given latitude to consider alternative sites. They could have recommended another site – at the Gateway, elsewhere in the preserve or out of the preserve altogether – provided an alternative showed promise as a superior location, insuring greater success for the Discovery Center. In fact, an alternative, superior site was identified, just south of the Gateway trailhead. That is the site council is now considering for the Desert EDGE.