Controversy spikes as Scottsdale plans Desert Discovery Center

SCOTTSDALE – A controversial, $75-million desert center in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is moving forward after two decades of wrangling, despite preservation activists’ attempts to stop it.

Opponents and supporters packed into seats and aisles in Scottsdale City Council chambers in late September, with one side arguing the Desert Discovery Center would educate visitors about the environment and the other side saying commercial development would destroy the preserve.

“The project being vilified by opposing voices is not the project being designed,” said Christine Kovach, who supports the proposed center.

Howard Myers, president of Protect Our Preserve, a group fighting the center, urged the council to bring the development to a public vote.

“If the DDC is such a good thing, it will pass the public’s support,” Myers said. “It’s the people’s preserve.”

Other center opponents cheered and applauded.

Scottsdale leaders are working with private companies to create a center that executive director Sam Campana likened to the ocean-inspired Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The council allocated $1.7 million in hotel taxes for the final design.

The project, which has been contentious for years, is planned as an interactive, educational exhibit. Scottsdale will pay 90 percent of the center’s costs, with the rest coming from private funds.

A city-commissioned study of the preserve by WestGroup Research indicates most people who use the trails are those living closer to the preserve. Only about 12 percent live outside Scottsdale, the study shows.

That’s a problem, said Campana, a former Scottsdale mayor.

“The idea was always that it (the preserve) would be for everyone, and it’s really turned out to be just kind of a place for hikers and bikers, not a place for people to go and learn about the desert and understand where they live,” Campana said.

The center is working closely with Arizona State University to research what educational elements could go into the center. Wellington Reiter, executive director of ASU’s University City Exchange, said the best way to protect the preserve is to teach people about it.

“How could a research university like ours pair up with Scottsdale to really think about the legacy of this place and actually preserve the preserve?” Reiter said.

Other who petitioned the city council to change the charter – a move to try the stop the discovery center and any future development – said it would violate preserve rules against commercial development of the land.

“The preserve is an asset we can’t afford to lose,” Myers said. “There’s a lot of citizen investment in this.”

The 30,000-acre preserve was created after Scottsdale residents in 1995 voted to raise sales taxes – the first of two public votes – to fund the mountain park. Members of Protect Our Preserve said taxpayers should get to decide whether the discovery center should be established.

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“It’s our preserve that we paid for,” said John Holmes, another advocate with Protect Our Preserve. “It’s a violation of public trust by the city government.”

The center will be built at Gateway Trailhead, the most popular trail. Campana said Gateway is the best choice because it draws the most people, has parking for disabled people and is far enough from homes to mitigate noise and dust during construction.

Opponents said the best location for the center is outside the preserve so construction won’t interfere with hiking and biking. It also would entice people to explore more trails than if it located next to only one trail.

This story has been updated to clarify Scottsdale residents voted on sales taxes and had two public votes.