Why We Oppose the Desert Discovery Center

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Protect OUR Preserve PAC opposes 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. The all-volunteer McDowell Sonoran Conservancy’s offers the same curriculum as part of a 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.

YES to 420. OUR Preserve, OUR Taxes, OUR Vote! Protect OUR Preserve!

Our Charter Change, In Detail

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Why are we asking for a small Charter change? Why alter the City’s “Constitution”? Are there unintended consequences? Does it handcuff the City Council?

A group of experts, including former Preserve Commissioners and a panel of attorneys, gave these questions serious thought and vigorous debate for several weeks in November 2017. There was extensive research and dialog behind our ballot language, to ensure that our change did exactly what it needed to Protect the Preserve, and nothing more.

To fully understand why we had to alter the City’s fundamental governing document and vote YES TO 420, let’s do a quick review of the history leading up to our decision.

In 2004, when the citizens of Scottsdale voted to fund the Preserve through Bond purchases, and up through 2015, there was no mention in any citizen votes about a tourist event center costing $68M. Not one mention. Even the Desert Discovery Center\Desert Edge’s strongest proponents in 2004 made not a single mention of an expensive edutainment center when they commented in the City’s voting packet prior to the bond election.

“The answer is to preserve open space, which is exactly what the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is doing. We need to help complete the task of preserving more than 36,000 acres of open space.” — Art DeCabooter, 2004 Scottsdale City Ballot Packet

The preserve supports the tourism community by providing a unique and world-class amentiy that draws people from all over the world.” — Virginia Korte, 2004 Scottsdale City Ballot Packet

Protecting our natural environment also protects our hospitality industry and our quality of life. Because if this land isn’t preserved, a whole new city will be built in this area.” — Christine Kovach, 2004 Scottsdale City Ballot Packet

Today, Art DeCabooter sits on the Board of Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc. (DDCSI), the private firm that wants to develop the Preserve. Christine Kovach is DDCSI’s Chair. Virginia Korte is a City Councilperson and the Desert Edge’s most outspoken advocate. None of the three mention construction in their comments. The large Desert Edge did not exist, even in theory, anywhere in voting documents or even in the public dialog. The citizens firmly believed the were voting to preserve their land when they voted to tax themselves.

In 2010, 2011, and 2012 various city commissions studied the large tourist event center topic, and each one concluded it could not be built in the Preserve and could not use Preserve Funds without a vote of the citizens. The City’s leaders understood their limitations: the Preserve and Preserve Fund belonged to the citizens.

In 2015, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc board members including Sam Campana, Melinda Gulick, Christine Kovach and Lynne Lagarde heavily lobbied the City Attorney, City Manager, Mayor and Councilpeople. We’ve documented all the influence peddling in our IRS Complaint. The result of these backroom deals was in January 2016, City Attorney Bruce Washburn declared the City Council could build anything it wants in the Preserve using Preserve funds, by a simple majority of four politicians.

The City Charter and 13 years of precedent were thrown out.

Today the City Council maintains they can build anything they want in the Preserve. They can send out bulldozers to start the $68M Desert Edge by a simple majority of four people. This will open the entire Preserve to commercial development, and drain the Preserve Fund of $3-$5M a year as it subsidizes the Desert Edge. The Preserve Fund will likely be empty before its even finished collecting in 2034.

Our minimal Charter change — and if you look at this graphic below you will see it is truly minimal — closes this newly-exploited loophole. It does not change, alter or remove in any way the existing management structure of the Preserve through the hands of the Preserve Commission, City Staff and City Council.

Concerns that YES TO 420 will handcuff City Council are unfounded. We are confident we change nothing but construction, and the voters have ultimate authority.

Section 12.A of our ballot language places restrictions on construction. But the exceptions in 12.B keep the exactly same management and stewardship. Here are some specific examples of how these Preserve management topics have, and will continue to be handled with YES TO 420.

Example 1: A Natural Disaster 
The Preserve has an existing Fire Plan, that is outside the scope of our ballot change. We’ve confirmed with attorneys, and our local firemen at Station 10 a half mile from the Preserve, that nothing changes in regard to the existing fire response plan. Maintenance roads around the trailhead facilities and even on trails are and will continue to be allowed under section 12.B(2). Nothing changes with YES TO 420.

Floods occur every year in the Preserve. They have been managed minimally, as they are part of the regular course of nature. Existing management will not change. Flood channels have not needed to be built in the Preserve. Downstream dangers — if any — would be handled by development downstream, as is customary if a developer builds in a flood channel.

Example 2: Unsafe Conditions
The City regularly puts notifications out at trailheads restricting use after heavy rains.This has been ongoing since Browns Ranch opened nearly five years ago. Trail closures are not construction or altering the natural state of the land. Nothing in YES TO 420 restricts it.

Another example: the City recently closed some of the access on Tom’s Thumb, to protect nesting birds. Then, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Parsons Field Institute, working with the City of Scottsdale, implemented a prairie falcon monitoring project to study the birds. What an incredible way to protect our Preserve, and learn from it, without construction or altering the natural state of the land. YES TO 420 changes nothing about a project such as this.

Bees, washouts, wildlife, fallen trees can all be addressed similarly under existing management. Search-and-Rescue ops will remain as-is.

Example 3: Maintenance and Remediation
This is clearly exempted under 12.B(2) and (4). Here’s an example. Half a mile down from Sunrise summit on the east side, the trail used to go around a big saguaro. The trail was eroding downslope away from the saguaro, exposing the root and threatening its safety. You can see in this pic that City staff rerouted, armored, and remediated the trail. YES TO 420 does not change this.

Similarly, fire damage or invasive plants could be addressed, under section 12.B(4), which allows for restoration efforts.

YES TO 420 only closes a loophole, and keeps the Preserve in the hands of the citizens, not the politicians. It does nothing more that codify what we voted on in 2004, and formalize the precedent we’ve followed for 15 years.

This video is a great summary.