Tonalea school campus near 68th Street and Oak in Scottsdale

Community sentiment is mixed on a proposal by Phoenix Rising to build new youth soccer fields on the site of the old Tonalea school campus near 68th Street and Oak in Scottsdale.

Community opinion is split on Phoenix Rising’s $2.5-million proposal to build new youth soccer fields on the site of a former southern Scottsdale elementary school.

The Progress reported earlier this year that Scottsdale Unified School District and Phoenix Rising professional soccer club were in negotiations to lease the old Tonalea school site in southern Scottsdale to the club to build fields for Phoenix Rising FC Youth Soccer.

Most of the original school, which was closed in 2014, has since been demolished except for one building that features a mosaic mural that was designed and installed by Tonalea students.

Phoenix Rising has committed to fixing and preserving the mural as part of the project.

The proposal includes building two new soccer fields and a two-story administrative/locker room building on the site that would be reserved for use by Phoenix Rising-affiliated youth soccer teams for weekday practices and weekend games.

It would also include a number of amenities open to the public, including a walking path with exercise equipment, a play area for kids and a building with community meeting.

The walking path and play area would not be fenced in and would be accessible 24/7, according to a recent presentation the organization made to the community.

On April 6, the SUSD Governing Board voted unanimously to direct the district’s attorney to continue negotiations with Phoenix Rising. Both sides have indicated they would likely sign a 20-year lease for the site, which is the longest lease the district can approve under state law. 

Under any agreement, the Phoenix Rising has committed to covering 100 percent of all construction, operations and maintenance costs. The group estimates it will cost $2.5-million to transform the mostly vacant site into the new soccer facility.

Phoenix Rising co-owner Tim Riester said the goal of the project is to create an asset that can be enjoyed by the local community and that the deal is contingent on community support.

“One of our caveats at Phoenix Rising is we didn’t want to bring in investment into a community that didn’t want us in the community,” he said.

So far the project has received a mixed response from neighbors.

A sizable group of locals were vocal in their opposition to the project during a meeting last month.

Some were skeptical of the community benefit because most local kids currently play in non-Rising leagues and because the neighborhood’s predominantly elderly population wouldn’t benefit from the fields.

Riester said the youth organization – like many others in the Valley – is in desperate need of new fields to serve its 8,000 players. 

He said the Phoenix Rising Youth Soccer already has fields reserved at nearby Salt River Field and near Loop 202 and McClintock on the site on the old Phoenix Rising pro stadium, but is still in need of more space.

Riester said the organization will “absolutely” do outreach to boost local enrollment in its programs if the Tonalea proposal goes through.

While some locals questioned whether or not that outreach would be effective, some were interested in signing their kids up for a team if the Rising takes over the site.

One mother said she had a young son and “he would be in that club” if the Rising proposal is built.

Some neighbors were concerned that noise and light spill over into nearby homes during evening activities. The team has said the lights would be on until 9:30 p.m. most evenings.

“We have a very passionate community that’s been here for a very, very long time, and we don’t want to see this change our neighborhood with crowds and trash and lights,” one neighbor said.

Even with that opposition, a poll of meeting attendees and those watching online showed a majority supported the proposal. 

Of 232 votes cast, 140 indicated they would like to see the district move forward with the project. Of the remainder 86 voted no and six were undecided.

Critics have argued the poll had no guarantee everyone who voted is a community member or SUSD stakeholder. The district had no way to validate addresses or residency of participants.

SUSD staffer Daniel Collinsworth, who facilitated the meeting, noted, “One of the first questions was how they were connected to the project.”

“We have to take everyone at their word of how they are connected since we do not have a way to actually validate the truth to their statements.”

Riester said he believed the poll showed there is community support for the project but did not dismiss neighbors’ concerns.

“We’d like to get to the point where everybody’s in favor of it, but sometimes you need to come in and prove that what you’re saying is really going to happen,” he said. “And I think some of the neighbors have seen things that were said that didn’t happen in the past, so they’re skeptical.”

The Tonalea site has been at the center of several controversies since it closed in 2014, leading to distrust between neighbors and the district over the site’s future.

Longtime community member Nancy Cantor said residents have also been concerned it would be sold to a charter school operator.

She said residents turned out in force at a governing board meeting in January 2015 to oppose a rumored community services center that could have brought a homeless shelter or similar use to the site.

Riester said he hoped the meeting would provide the team the opportunity to dispel some concerns about Rising’s proposed project.

For instance, some neighbors voiced concerns about the increased noise and light pollution.

Riester said the Rising’s youth organization does not use PA systems during practices or games and said it will be using new directional LED lighting technology that limits spillover to neighbors.

Neighbors also had concerns that the new fields would further exacerbate growing parking and traffic problems in the area that have resulted from an influx of apartments built in the area in recent years.

The organization said it will maintain the site’s 100 parking spaces and is exploring potential on-street parking as well.

Riester said he believes that will be more than sufficient to service the teams on the site. Teams max out at about 18 players for older kids, with younger teams featuring smaller rosters, he said.

Riester did acknowledge the team was considering pitching the Tonalea site as one of several “spring training” sites for pro teams, but said that plan would not move forward without community buy-in.

The team retained former Scottsdale Traffic Director Paul Basha to develop parking and traffic plans for the site.

Other neighbors said they wanted to see the district bring a school back to the site instead of leasing it to an outside party.

But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Several demographic studies from Applied Economics commissioned by the district have shown declining enrollment numbers at nearby southern Scottsdale schools.

In 2019, Applied Economics found that the new Tonalea K-8 would likely experience enrollment declines over the next decade.