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Desert Discovery Center

Project Overview

Scottsdale’s Desert Discovery Center (DDC) is envisioned as an interpretive, education and research center intended to complement the McDowell Sonoran Preserve experience and be a focal point for understanding human interaction with arid environments. The City of Scottsdale is in the project planning phase for the DDC concept and in the process of determining what elements should be included, how large it might be and how much it would cost to build and operate.

The current planning effort has three major elements as a result of the January 2016 City Council Meeting:

  1. Create a business plan and feasibility analysis for the Desert Discovery Center. This work will be done by Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale (DDCS), a nonprofit entity hired by the City. In addition, the DDCS is conducting public outreach and exploring the fundraising potential of the project with the goal of offsetting the need for public dollars.
  2. Begin the process to amend the City site plan at the Gateway Trailhead, which would be necessary if the Desert Discovery Center is built there.
  3. Hire an architect to create conceptual site and floor plans and preliminary building designs.

The current planning phase of the project will be complete in August 2017. Upon completion, it will be up to the City Council to determine if they want to move forward with the project.

Project Update

The Desert Discovery Center Project Team has been working through the summer to bring on key consultants and move the study from the planning phase into the programming phase. The team is on track to present initial concepts to the community in late November.
This planning and evaluation will be complete in August 2017. Upon completion, it will be up to the City Council to determine if they want to move forward with the project.

For the next several months, the team will concentrate on what the DDC experience could be and what elements it could include. Once this is well defined, the evaluation will move to preliminary design, which will result in preliminary plans for the buildings and the site – these are key steps in arriving at an accurate cost estimate.

Here is a snap shot of what’s been happening over the last few months:

  • Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale hired Thinc Designlinks to external site to create conceptual exhibits and educational programs that would be central elements of the proposed center. This work is a cornerstone of the evaluation process – once it is clear what sorts of things could happen at the center, conceptual designs and layouts to support that programming can take shape. After interviewing five of the 18 firms that applied, DDCS chose Thinc because of its sustainability ethic and expertise in community collaboration; the firm is best known for designing the 9-11 Memorial experience in New York City.
  • The City of Scottsdale hired Swaback Partnerslinks to external site as the project architects. They will head up preliminary design and help determine the look and profile of the proposed facility. Initial work is under way, including a traffic analysis by Kimley-Horn & Associates. The team is led by John Sather who is using the feedback gathered from the initial planning phase to begin formulating initial design parameters.
  • The DDCS has nearly met its required private-sector fund-raising commitment thanks in part to a successful summer Nature Film Festival as well as several significant grants and many donations.


Public Meetings

Various public and stakeholder meetings to present ideas and gather comments have been held throughout 2016. These documents contain the feedback gathered during that process:

Additionally, a Municipal Use Master Site Plan process was initiated Jan. 11 to amend the current site plan for a Desert Discovery Center element at the Gateway Trailhead. The majority of this process is anticipated to take place in 2017.

Community Presentations

The DDCS team is available to speak with residents and business owners by presenting to local community groups. Please let us know if you would like to schedule a presentation to a group in our community.  


Frequently Asked Questions

The City Council has authorized further development of the DDC concept at the Gateway Trailhead located within Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The Gateway location for the DDC was approved by the City Council in 2007 as part of the Gateway Municipal Use Master Site Plan (MUMSP). The Gateway Trailhead is located on relatively flat land, pulled away from the mountain slopes. The process for reviewing the site plan and design for the DDC at the Gateway will be a proposed site amendment to the MUMSP, which will be considered by the City Council through the public hearing process.

The construction of the DDC is not currently approved or funded. In January 2016, the Scottsdale City Council approved creating a business plan and feasibility analysis for the DDC concept and selecting an architect to create conceptual site and floor plans, as well as preliminary building designs. These contracts were funded by $1.7 million in bed tax dollars – money paid by visitors who rent rooms at Scottsdale’s resorts and hotels. Bed tax dollars can only be spent on projects that support tourism in Scottsdale.

The exact size and design for the DDC is what we are in the process of determining. The DDCS will develop the recommended concept, building upon the work that has emerged from multiple previous studies, reconsidering all aspects in terms of a new economy, new partners and a new vision. This includes expanding on the extensive public outreach done for the Phase II study in 2010.

The 2010 DDC concept called for several, small-scale linked pavilions on the site, and that is the starting point for the current evaluation. Although the City has identified 30 acres as the current study area, the entire area would not likely be utilized. The vision is for the DDC to be built on a minimalist footprint that reflects the vision for this project – “to educate and inspire people to value and thrive in desert environments through transformative experiences based on global scientific study.”

The DDC educational/interpretive center concept has been a part of community conversations for more than 30 years. Early Preserve discussions include City planning documents and publications dating back to the McDowell Mountain Task Force in 1993. Several City Council actions over the past 20 years have acknowledged or accepted reports locating the DDC at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Over the past 20 years the DDC concept has been discussed in numerous City meetings, open houses and community conversations. The concept has evolved from that of a basic information center into a global center focused on tourism, research, education and policies regarding sustainable living in arid environments.

Citizens and visitors, through their sales tax dollars, paid for the Preserve. Providing access for everyone, has and always will be, an important Preserve goal, including access for those who do not hike, bike or horseback ride. There are currently 11 access areas, four with existing trailhead buildings, and a few smaller maintenance sheds in the Preserve. Two more trailhead facilities are currently in the design stages.

The DDC concept is intended to complement the experience of the Preserve, encourage preservation and instill a sense of harmony and respect for the desert. DDC facilities and programs would be compatible with Scottsdale’s Preserve Ordinance. As a model for sustainability, the DDC would be desert-sensitive and low-scale. The goal would be for visitors to gain an increased understanding of why preservation and conservation is so important

No trails will be eliminated. There might be some minor rerouting to the Desert Park Trail, but the experience on that trail, as a connector to the DC Ranch Village Health Club and Spa, will remain the same. The Phase II concept locates the DDC north of the existing public trailhead building.

The ultimate cost of the DDC will not be determined until the final planning and design of the facility is complete.

Private and public funding sources for the project are currently being studied and evaluated. One source is the City’s bed tax dollars, which are generated by tourism specifically for projects of this nature. The DDC is envisioned as a public/not-for-profit partnership with private sector dollars supplementing the City’s investment. DDCS already has raised funds and the recently approved City contract requires the DDCS to raise an additional $270,000 in private funds and in-kind contributions for this phase of the project’s implementation and commits the private sector to a goal of raising at least 10 percent of DDC capital costs.

The DDC is planned to be self-sustaining and would include an annual development funding goal, in addition to earned revenue, memberships and corporate/individual giving. A capital campaign to include a three-year operating reserve and the beginning of an endowment is envisioned. A resilient DDC would be an important component of the City’s economic development strategies.

The City of Scottsdale would own the land, buildings and infrastructure for the DDC. However, it is envisioned that a private operator would be under contract to run the facility on a daily basis, providing programs, experiential exhibits, volunteers and staff. This model for a public/private partnership is used to run facilities such as Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.

No, the DDC will be a municipal use, managed and operated by a not-for-profit organization. Many of the municipal use facilities that we enjoy as citizens, provided to us by our City are not commercial operations (parks, museums, civic plazas, libraries, educational programs, etc.).

The DDC has been conceived, studied and discussed in the community since the mid-80s. In January 2016, the City of Scottsdale voted to move forward with the next stage of planning for the DDC, including hiring an architect to develop schematic plans. This is why you are now starting to hear more about the DDC. In the coming months, there will be a great deal of public outreach and many opportunities to ask questions and learn more.

Bell Road and Thompson Peak Parkway are classified as Minor Arterials, designed to service 25,000 to 34,000 average daily trips. Both roads have divided medians and turning lanes. These roadways were designed and constructed to support much higher traffic volumes than currently exist in this area of the city. As the DDC concept is developed, attendance projections and traffic volumes will be evaluated, as well.

The tourism industry supported the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and being able to provide a unique Sonoran Desert immersive experience showcases Scottsdale’s destination tourism brand. Visitors to these types of learning and experience venues comprise a significant segment of the travel industry. They also stay 53 percent longer and spend 35 percent more money than other kinds of tourists, thus benefitting local businesses.

Citizens already can hike, bike and ride their horses within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. With the addition of the DDC, they also would be able to learn more about their Sonoran desert home, while providing a one-of-a-kind experience to share with out-of-town visitors. The DDC’s environmental, science and Arizona history educational programs, tied to state standards, would also be a vital resource for local teachers and school children.

Contact Information

City of Scottsdale - Capital Project Management             
7447 E. Indian School Rd., Ste. 205
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
P: 480-312-7250
F: 480-312-7971

Gary Meyer             
Senior Project Manager
P: 480-312-2367                

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