Two years after the city committed nearly $50 million for a vacant piece of land near WestWorld of Scottsdale, officials still have no clear idea what to do with it.
Some say it’s surplus land that should be sold. Others say it should be used for parking for major events at WestWorld such as the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction, the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show and the nearby FBR Open. Yet another proposal calls for an analysis of the land’s best use, or even turning it into a park.
Meanwhile, the city is paying millions of dollars a year in financing, and residential neighbors are left in limbo as to what may be going in next door.
City Councilman Bob Littlefield said voters in 2000 rejected a bond measure to expand WestWorld, 16601 N. Pima Road. Now, some city officials, including Mayor Mary Manross, are trying to undo the election’s outcome by holding onto the land, he said.
“I think what we have here are some people that are essentially trying to overturn the results of that election,” Littlefield said. “I think what we have is people trying to do by the back door what they couldn’t do by the front door.”
Manross did not return calls seeking comment.
The roughly 80-acre parcel straddles 94th Street on the north side of Bell Road. The city bought the property at auction from the Arizona Land Department in 2005 for $47.5 million, and financed it through a bond issue, said Craig Clifford, the city’s chief financial officer. At the time, officials said they were buying the land for WestWorld parking.
The purchase was a contingency plan, just in case the city was outbid in a subsequent state land auction for two contiguous parcels closer to WestWorld, Clifford said. The city eventually bought those parcels as well, a total of about 70 acres abutting WestWorld’s northern edge, for more than $32 million.
Littlefield said that since the city now owns the acreage closer to WestWorld, the more northerly 80 acres should be sold.
“Now we’ve got them both. Good, time to sell the first one,” Littlefield said. “I think there’s only one possibility that makes sense, and that’s selling it.”
Kroy Ekblaw, the city’s planning systems general manager, said the land is zoned for residential use on 7,000 square-foot lots. There has been discussion of keeping the land for some municipal use, such as a park, he said. “Recreation is the one that’s most talked about,” Ekblaw said.
Barrett-Jackson has long sought to use the 80 acres for overflow parking at its annual vintage car auction at WestWorld. The auction’s economic impact on the local economy has been pegged at about $100 million a year. City officials have been reluctant to open up the land, however, without a long-term contract to keep the auction at WestWorld.
Jason Rose, Barrett-Jackson’s publicist, called the city’s October decision not to draft a site plan for the land, which would have formalized what the city’s plans are for the property, “disappointing and short-sighted.” Council members said the move was meant to retain flexibility on the land’s ultimate use.
“We would hope that it would not preclude options in the short-term such as using the land for parking,” Rose said. “Right now, the land is being used for nothing.”
Councilwoman Betty Drake said officials should conduct an analysis to determine the land’s best use. That determination needs to take into account the concerns of the site’s neighbors in DC Ranch to the north, she said.
“We really haven’t had serious discussions with the neighbors about what we’re going to do about it,” Drake said. “They live right next door.”
Littlefield said if the city holds onto the land, the annual bond financing on the 80 acres, in addition to the adjacent 70 acres the city bought later, will necessitate either tax increases or budget cuts.
The market for the land is there, he said. He pointed to recent state Land Department auctions for vacant parcels in north Scottsdale and northeast Phoenix that fetched record prices.
“We can’t afford to keep that land. It’s as simple as that,” Littlefield said.
Clifford, however, said it’s unlikely the city will face budget cuts or tax hikes, since projected revenue growth is expected to keep pace with the gradual escalation in the annual payments the city makes on both the 80-acre and 70-acre parcels.
Budget cuts or tax hikes would only happen if there’s a significant economic downturn or the council adds major new expenses to the budget, he said.
“It should match our growth easily. I would like to think we would have sustainable revenue and we can deal with this,” Clifford said.
Annual payments on the northerly 80 acres range from about $2.4 million this year to about $3.8 million in 2035, while payments on the 70-acre parcel range from $1.4 million this year to about $2.5 million in 2031, Clifford said.
“I think it’s very prudent, very responsible the way we’ve done it,” he said.