Scottsdale land that includes famous Greasewood saloon may one day host discovery center

Greasewood Flats update – Scottsdale AZ

030413518bd PNI0306-met greasewood

Sixty years ago, George “Doc” Cavalliere purchased more than 40 acres of raw desert east of Pinnacle Peak, in an area that is now part of north Scottsdale.
He and his wife ran the famous Reata Pass Steakhouse on the property until 1975, when they leased it to another operator.
At that time, Cavalliere decided to convert a nearby bunkhouse into a hideaway for friends.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Greasewood Flat is considered one of the last bastions of the Old West in Scottsdale.
Rusty equipment and farm wagons cover the sprawling grounds that draw a lively mix of bargoers and bikers to the bunkhouse turned saloon.
Cavalliere died in 2009 at age 92, passing on the businesses to his grandsons: Jacob, Justin and Joshua Johnson.
The property, southeast of Alma School Parkway and Pinnacle Vista Drive, has been on the market in large part because the family faces a hefty estate tax from the inheritance.
With the property up for sale, the Sonoran Desert next to Greasewood has become a prime target for housing, posing a threat to the acres that have been in the family for decades, said Hoyt Johnson III, whose three sons own the businesses.
At least one option has surfaced that may save the land.
Scottsdale City Councilman Guy Phillips has suggested the city purchase the 42 acres, including Greasewood and Reata Pass, and convert a portion of the nearby land into tourist attractions, including a desert discovery center.
Supporters say Phillips’ vision could keep Greasewood open while protecting much of the desert from suburban sprawl.
Many options for desert land
On a recent Sunday, Hoyt Johnson toured the flat, cactus-studded grounds ripe with saguaros and greasewoods. Nearby, the sounds of folk music emanated from the outdoor saloon.
“We plan to be here for a long long time, if there’s a way for us to do that,” Johnson said later, noting that Greasewood isn’t likely to close soon.
Right now, there is a good chance that a developer could build homes on the desert property, Johnson said, noting he is “very, very open” to discussing a land sale with Scottsdale.
Phillips, a Scottsdale councilman since January, said he was seeking signs of support.
Scottsdale has already planned a desert discovery center at the city’s Gateway trailhead into the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, near Bell Road and Thompson Peak Parkway.
As proposed, the $74 million project would be a museum and educational hub for visitors to experience the Sonoran Desert without having to set foot in the wilderness.
There is one problem: The site falls within the boundaries of the city’s preserve, drawing complaints from activists who fear its negative impact on the natural desert.
Phillips proposed the Greasewood/Reata Pass site as an alternative, noting that there are “many options” to build a discovery center and an amphitheater, or refurbish the old Reata Pass steakhouse, which has closed.
Dan Worth, Scottsdale’s interim city manager, called the proposal a “fascinating idea” but declined to comment further unless he received direction from the city’s elected officials.
Scottsdale officials did contact the seller to find out the property’s asking price — $21 million — and looked at comparable sales, he said.
Money remains a key hurdle
The biggest problem is money. Scottsdale, in the wake of the recession, lacks funding to cover even basic projects. Later this month, City Council members will decide whether to put a bond election on the November ballot, which would ask voters to raise their property taxes to bankroll new projects.
Phillips said Scottsdale could include the 42-acre land purchase in the bond package. In the meantime, “the city would have to come up with $1million to have them hold the property,” he said.
Scottsdale City Councilman Bob Littlefield was aware of Phillips’ proposal but expressed doubt that voters would support a tax increase. He suggested that Scottsdale use revenue from its bed tax, adding that the project could generate crucial tourism dollars for the city.
“If Guy or the city can come up with a way to buy that land with bed-tax money at a reasonable price and would turn into some tourism or revenue-generating thing, that’s exactly what we need, instead of more apartment development,” Littlefield said.
James Heitel, chairman of the city’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, said one of the ongoing issues is the discovery center’s location in the preserve.
Scottsdale has an ordinance that bans certain “uses” of the land, including the sale of food and beverages, which doesn’t mesh with plans for a restaurant and other elements proposed for a discovery center.
Howard Myers, a former commission chairman, said Phillips’ suggestion “solves a couple of problems,” including the preservation of Greasewood and Reata Pass.
Myers still voiced concerns about the proposed discovery center on the land near houses, which is not easily accessible and will bring a lot more traffic to an area that is mostly residential. A smaller-scale center might work, he said.