Scottsdale officials were on an opinion-gathering mission Saturday at WestWorld.The hot topic: Would East Valley residents welcome an educational venue on the site of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve that tells the story of the Sonoran Desert? And if so, what would residents want it to look like and feature?
"This is still in the concept phase," stressed Bob Cafarella, preservation director for Scottsdale, at Saturday's open housewhere conceptual themes gathered from community workshops last December were unveiled to the public for further input.
Saturday's presentation was part of a feasibility study to determine if it's viable to construct a "Desert Discovery Center" at the Gateway to the Preserve on the northeast section of Bell Road and Thompson Peak Parkway.
The study, overseen by the city's preservation and tourism development commissions, is being funded by the city - through bed tax revenue - and by private donors.
Cafarella said the idea of a discovery center that would educate visitors on the Sonoran Desert and its wildlife has been in discussion for well over a decade.
He said by the late 1990s, the city's tourism development committee started exploring the possibility of such a center.
Then, he said, the idea was put on the back burner following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - a time when Cafarella said no one knew what the future of tourism would be.
Cafarella said about four years ago, members of the preservation commission rekindled the idea.
A little less than half of the preserve's 36,400 acres are protected from development, Cafarella said. The balance of the acreage is state land.
Cafarella said plans are under way to instill temporary parking at the Gateway - the largest access area to the preserve - by late October.
He estimated new trails will open to the public by late winter 2009.
Mayor Mary Manross, who reviewed the proposed ideas at Saturday's open house, seemed supportive of the proposed center, which may feature loop interpretive trails, an amphitheater and on-site educational staff.
"The most precious open space is right where we live," said Manross, describing the possibility of a center as a "great educational tool and tourist attraction."
"The more we are all educated on the McDowell Sonoran environment, the more we will appreciate it," Manross said.
Some Scottsdale residents had mixed feelings about the proposed center.
"It would be good for people coming to the preserve to know more about its unique ecology. But I don't want it to become a Disneyland (type of) attraction," said Martha Miller, a retiree who lives just south of the preserve.
Part-time Scottsdale resident Viviane Barone, 56, agreed.
"It would be OK if they kept it small," said Barone, as she jotted down her thoughts and concerns on a questionnaire.
Cafarella said the next step is for the city and its private consultants to come up with a concise concept based on public feedback.
If the feasibility study comes back positive, he said there will be further discussion as to projected costs and oversight.
He said they hope to make a presentation to the City Council on their findings by spring.