When Jason Alexander ’92 and his family moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., eight years ago, they chose their neighborhood in part because of its proximity to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, some 30,000 acres of protected desert and mountain terrain with an extensive network of trails for hiking, biking, running, and horseback riding. For Alexander, a computer programmer who rides mountain bikes in his free time, it was a great place to explore. And the trails would eventually lead him to an unexpected destination: a new interest in community activism.
About two years ago, Alexander saw plans for a private group to build a “discovery center” at the preserve’s main trailhead, with a city-estimated price tag of $68 million, according to the Arizona Republic. He was wary of the new development, especially after combing through the plans in detail. Since the citizens of Scottsdale had paid to create the preserve, Alexander reasoned they ought to have the chance to vote on this significant change, as well as any future proposals for development on preserve lands.
Working with like-minded citizens, Alexander has been campaigning to bring the project to a public vote. Two related groups, NoDDC and Protect Our Preserve, have been collecting thousands of signatures from registered voters. They need at least 23,908 verified signatures, nearly a quarter of the city’s registered voters, and so far they’ve gathered 31,600, Alexander told the Republic last week.
The drive has been “an incredible growth experience,” Alexander said in an interview with PAW, noting the contrast to computer programming and mountain biking, which are mostly solitary pursuits. “You talk with people of every age, income level, race, [and] ethnicity. … You listen and have a respectful conversation with a stranger that you don’t necessarily agree with. It’s something that a lot of people thought stopped existing in our politics.”
Alexander has been active behind the scenes, working with other volunteers on legal challenges to the proposed development. He’s been a vocal opponent to the plan at city-council meetings as well. Helping to build consensus and thinking carefully about what you write and say are “all part of relating in the public square,” he said.
The petition drive, coordinated by social media, has connected Alexander with dozens of volunteers, including at least one Princetonian, J.D. Helms ’59, a longtime Scottsdale resident who calls the McDowell Sonoran Preserve “a real jewel” for the community. Helms, who estimates that he has spent 60 to 80 hours collecting signatures, said that when you explain the petition to voters, “very few people will turn you down.” Alexander adds that Helms has been a particularly valuable part of the team. “He’s just this very friendly, clearly intelligent, energetic guy — I liked him instantly,” he said.
The deadline for submitting collected signatures to the city clerk is in the first week of July. If successful, a public vote would be held on election day in November.