The Town Council voted June 18 to approve the next stage toward the launch of the Arizona Dark Sky Discovery Center in Fountain Hills.
The 6-0 unanimous vote was to authorize the use of town-owned land adjacent to the Centennial Circle next to the Cutillo Civic Plaza.
Joe Bill, president of the board of directors for the project, brought the council up to date on plans for the discovery center non-profit corporation before the vote.
Bill said the long-term lease of the property is contingent on a successful fundraising effort to build the center. The fundraising campaign is expected to begin in early fall and cover the entire cost of the facility.
A feasibility study prepared for the group projects a project goal of roughly $10 million based on a 2022 construction timeline. Development delays beyond that would require new cost estimates. The study was prepared by MPA students at Arizona State University as a Capstone project for the spring semester.
The study projects a construction and technology budget of $6.1 million with the additional $4 million earmarked for five years of operational costs, exclusive of any revenue taken in during the first five years.
The study makes a staffing proposal of four paid personnel including a director, education coordinator, marketing coordinator and a volunteer coordinator. It is anticipated a 30-person volunteer contingent would be needed.
The facility is proposed to be 13,000 to 14,000 square feet with four main components including an observatory, planetarium, exhibit hall and auditorium/theater. There is also a plan for a classroom, offices and gift shop.
The telescope observatory would be used for special tours, student activities, events and astrophotography. The planetarium would have typical astronomy shows as well as a variety of other laser shows. Interactive and informative displays would be part of the exhibit hall and the auditorium/theater would allow for lectures and visual presentations.
Bill said they also see the opportunity for astronomy camps. He said that while there are such activities in Tucson and Flagstaff, there are no such camps in the Phoenix area offering a huge potential for the local facility.
There are bus tour events that leave Fountain Hills for such Valley destinations as the Musical Instrument Museum, downtown museums and similar attractions.
“We want to turn those busses around,” Bill said. The new center could market a package with the L. Alan Cruikshank River of Time Museum, the Community Garden and the public art sculptures in the civic center and Community Center.”
The board has put considerable time and research into the planning. Bill said they have identified professionals who have volunteered to act as technical advisors for the project – willing to advise and answer questions with no active role. They include Mark Pine, director of Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, and Dr. Jeffery Hall, director of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.
There is a great deal of enthusiasm for the project by Bill and the board of directors, which includes Bill’s wife, Nancy, as treasurer; Ted Blank, vice president; Walt Franklin, Jerry Butler and Councilman Alan Magazine.
Bill also acknowledged the help of several other volunteers present at the meeting.
With the council authorization to work with town-owned land, the committee can begin its focus on fundraising. The project will not use any public funding and rely on contributions. Bill said they will be looking to offer naming rights for each of the four focus components – observatory, planetarium, exhibit hall and auditorium/theater – as well as the overall facility.
The site for the center occupies a portion of the existing Community Garden and the discovery center board worked closely with the garden board to arrive at an agreement that will allow the garden to maintain the number of beds available. The discovery center project will take care of replacing or relocating the displaced beds and equipment, as well as provide access to a restroom for garden patrons.
Garden manager Rita Applegate told the council she was appreciative of Bill reaching out to her and understanding her passion for the garden, but she sees this as a great opportunity for the town as well as the garden facility.
Bill Hinz of the CopperWynd Resort told the council he believes this is a great opportunity for branding of the resort property. He said, working with Marriott officials, they felt what really distinguishes the property is the desert and the sky, branding CopperWynd as “a place in between.”
As a member of the discovery center board of directors, Magazine excused himself from the vote.