Why We Oppose the Desert Discovery Center\Edge
We oppose the Desert Edge because it will spend $68,000,000 of future sales taxes to build a 120,000 sq ft. tourism event center inside our nature Preserve, that will include a restaurant and 60 evening events per year. It will change the ordinances protecting our Preserve to open its entire 30,000 acres up to future commercial development. Scottsdale citizens voted five times to tax themselves $1.7 billion dollars to preserve this land, and our City Charter guarantees this commercial venture must go to a vote of the people.
This large hi-tech museum was first discussed in 2010, 2011 and 2012. However, it was never moved forward because City Council understood that the public monies used on public lands needed the public’s approval. Scottsdale had other pressing infrastructure needs, and the project was shelved. Indeed, in the upcoming 2018 election our City Council plans to ask the taxpayers for $350,000,000 in new bonds, some of which will go to repair bridges that have literally been closed due to lack of repairs.
What has changed such that the Desert Edge is moving forward with only a simple majority of four City Councilpeople? In 2015 DDC’s zoning attorney, who doesn’t even live in Scottsdale, concocted a legal theory that a vote was no longer required. The people behind the DDC then conducted an extensive campaign of illegal lobbying of City Council, staff, and the public. They are barred from this type of activity since they are organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. We have filed an extensive complaint with the IRS to have their tax-exempt status revoked.
Supporters of the project have claimed that its always been planned. This is nonsense. The 2004 ballot package that funded most of our Preserve says absolutely nothing about museums or tourist attractions. That same ballot only empowered City Council to make improvements “thereto” the Preserve which further the concept of public access – trailheads, parking, water fountains. The lobbyists behind the DDC are seeking improvements “thereon”: buildings, attractions, construction. We have raised over $100,000 and sued the City on this legal distinction.
This is a critical topic for environmentalists, as nationwide cities and states seek to exploit this legal nuance to use public lands for commercial development. If the DDC is built, there will be no legal protections for future commercial projects such as hotels, condos and jeep tours.
The multiple legal issues notwithstanding, our financial experts predict the Desert Edge will lose $3 to $5 million dollars annually, which must be subsidized by the taxpayers. The DDC business plan has three huge flaws.
- It has wildly optimistic attendance estimates of 306,000 visitors per year. This makes it nearly on par with the long-established Desert Botanical Garden and Tucson’s Desert Museum, which both average approximately 375,000 annual visitors. The DDC predicts more visitors than the Musical Instrument Museum and Taliesin West combined.
- Dramatically underestimated fundraising needs. The DDC business plan says it can be profitable with only 27% of its income from annual fundraising. However, the same business plan states the DDC’s direct comps (the Botanical Garden, the Desert Museum, etc) require 37% fundraising. And, the “science museum” sector as a whole requires a whopping 52% income from fundraising.
- Extreme overestimate of volunteer support and underestimate of staffing costs. The business plan requires 300 volunteers, and budgets only one $35,000/year employee to manage them.
Additionally, feedback from both tourists and residents is consistent that the project’s reliance on digital screens and virtual exhibits make it inauthentic. Visitors repeatedly tell us that they come to see the real desert. The price tag of $57 for a family of four is excessive, when the real Preserve can be seen for free and enjoyed by everyone from the handicapped to hardcore hikers. There has only been one study in 2013 on the impact to the Tourism industry, and it states that the project will have minimal impact on additional hotel stays. The DDC’s promised educational component for local youth was widely dismissed, as only 11 Scottsdale teachers attended the DDC’s curriculum workshop even after being granted $500 to teach the program. Finally, the curriculum was bought off-the-shelf from ASU’s Lisa Hermann, who just recently led the all-volunteer McDowell Sonoran Conservancy’s free educational programs for area youth. In short, we already have everything the Desert Edge would offer: the desert, the tourists, and the education. The Desert Edge is nothing more than a big-government pet project that will spend $68,000,000 with very little to show in return.