My Turn: No Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center without public vote

carol-shepardCarol Shepard

From AZCentral this morning:

Scottsdale woman offers her take on 5 claims about the proposed Desert Discovery Center:

“As a Scottsdale resident, I see no fiscal or quality of life benefit to Scottsdale taxpayers from this project.”

Absolutely right, Carol; this sums it up in one simple sentence!

Source: My Turn: No Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center without public vote

It is a public administration disservice to Scottsdale taxpayers that our City Council members voted 4-3 to not allow a citizen vote on the creation of a Desert Discovery Center in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Even if the revised 2017 project ends up costing half the $74 million estimated in 2010,there is no choice but to put this to a public vote.

As a Scottsdale resident, I see no fiscal or quality of life benefit to Scottsdale taxpayers from this project. Instead, we should buy more land to expand the preserve. Or use this money to benefit the entire city with improved roads, libraries, fire stations and police facilities.

A counter to supporters’ claims

Education. Advocates say Discovery Center is for Sonoran Desert education.

We already have well-established facilities for residents and tourists to learn about the Sonoran Desert. Our tax dollars have already paid for McDowell Mountain’s beautiful interpretive trails, visitor centers and educational programs at the Tom’s Thumb, Brown’s Ranch, Gateway and Lost Dog Wash trailheads.

Then there’s the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, which already provides world-class educational exhibits and programs about the Sonoran Desert for residents and visitors. And it supports itself through private fundraising and paid admission.

Conservation. Dan Gruber, DDC board member, says in an April “My Turn” in the Scottsdale Republic: “Through the preserve and the DDC, Scottsdale can establish itself as a global leader in conservation policy … about how people in an urbanizing world can live sustainably in desert environments.”

Sustainability and global conservation are topics for university-hosted forums. It is not the fiscal responsibility of Scottsdale residents to pay for and build a center to host these discussions. Scottsdale already has excellent resorts for such events.

This is warped planning: to develop a preserve to prove our leadership in conservation?  Scottsdale taxpayers don’t need to spend tens of millions of dollars to build a massive “Discovery Center” at the Gateway trailhead to be a “global leader.” Leadership in conservation means Scottsdale should protect more acreage of the natural beauty of the McDowell Mountains. We don’t have to prove anything on a global scale – leave that to the universities.

Accessibility. Mr. Gruber also says the McDowell Sonoran Preserve was envisioned to “provide access to everyone, even those who can’t hike or bike.”

We’ve already built and paid for handicapped access to nature trails at Brown’s Ranch, Gateway and Lost Dog Wash trailheads. Using the “accessibility” rationale, we should build a paved road through the middle of the preserve to provide “access to everyone.” There will always be some part of the population that cannot access the preserve because of age or health.

Preservation. From a Scottsdale Republic article in January, “Tourism officials … lauded the project as a welcome boost for one of Scottsdale’s biggest economic drivers.” And a 2010 Desert Discovery Center study estimates the DDC could attract about 330,000 visitors annually.

The reason McDowell Sonoran Preserve is one of Scottsdale’s “biggest economic drivers” is because of its 30,000 acres of natural beauty – flowers, mountains, wildlife – where visitors can escape noisy, crowded urban development. Don’t shoot the golden goose.

What part of “preserve” does our council not understand? The preserve was funded with tax dollars from Scottsdale residents to protect the beauty of our signature mountain range. We taxed ourselves to protect this land as a sanctuary. This sanctuary protects wildlife habitat and trails for residents and visitors to enjoy nature away from crowds. A large visitor center serving more cars and buses does not support this goal.

330,000 visitors per year equals 6,346 visitors per week. That’s a lot of noise pollution, gas fumes, tour and school buses, and more paved parking lots covering natural desert. How is this considered leadership in sustainability?

Operating costs. Sam Campana, executive director for Desert Discovery Center, says “the concept is… most comparable to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.”

Really?  Monterey Bay charges a hefty admission fee – how much will DDC charge just to equal the multi-million dollar annual taxpayer operating budget?  If admission isn’t enough to cover operating costs, the Discovery Center will have to consider renting the facility for private events. This leads to more human impact on our desert wildlife and landscape.

The Desert Discovery Center is not needed. It duplicates other facilities. It is not an example of municipal fiscal responsibility. Unless Scottsdale residents give their approval through a public vote, it must not use taxpayer dollars for DDC design, construction or maintenance.

The private interests who want the Desert Discovery Center should raise private money and develop private land to move forward with their project. Let them carry the financial burden, not Scottsdale taxpayers.

Carol Shepard is a Scottsdale resident.


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