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Dark Sky Center shines brighter future on Fountain Hills

During Monday’s eclipse, about a thousand people showed up for a groundbreaking at the future home of the International Dark Sky Discovery Center in Fountain Hills. Nestled remotely in the McDowell Mountains east of Scottsdale, the town of 23,000 was designated in 2018 as one of just 17 Dark Sky cities in the entire world.

"It’s not very difficult to get, but it is difficult to keep. And it’s all based on how much artificial light you see in your night sky,” said Tony Pistilli, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association.

To keep that designation, Fountain Hills must be reevaluated and reaccredited each year.

“Artificial light must only be pointed at the ground. Objects that you want to see should be pointed in the air, especially bright blue light. You get blue light in the atmosphere and it just stays there and bounces around and comes back down at you," Pistilli said. 

Pistilli, who grew up in Staten Island, fascinated by astronomy, retired here in 2007. Today in broad daylight, he is manning a high powered solar telescope pointed at the eclipsing sun and connected to a TV monitor on a strip of land next to the town library that will soon house the $25 million dollar International Dark Sky Discovery Center.

“It’s going to be a very big draw for all of the Valley, plus we think it’ll be a draw from all over the world, really–because this is the only place where you can see all of the aspects of artificial light and what it affects all in one place,” Pistilli said.

Joe Bill is a longtime Fountain Hills resident who helped get the town incorporated in 1989. He also led the effort to get its Dark Sky designation and is president of the future 23,000-square-foot facility.

“Oh my gosh. We have an amazing science-based facility coming here. An observatory with the largest telescope in the Greater Phoenix area, a hyperspace planetarium, an inspiration theater, a night sky experience exhibit hall and an Einstein exploration station,” Bill said.

While observatories in Flagstaff and near Tucson are located in areas with less artificial light pollution, Bill hopes this will be the Valley’s own spot for viewing the universe.

“It’s a great opportunity to have an observatory so accessible to 5-million people in the Greater Phoenix area. Sure, it won’t be able to do the same level of research that can be done at Lowell or Kitt Peak, but it’s going to be a good size telescope that is capable of research, capable of public viewing, capable of astro-photography and the images can even be broadcast over the internet, if we want to," Bill said. 

The center will also partner with ASU for research and make itself available for visits from local schools.

Meanwhile, the town–mostly known for its hourly fountain–is also counting on a fresh spray of new visitors and perhaps residents. That's what resident Clare Haughey is hoping.

“We definitely need low-cost housing and more families coming in, yes,” Haughey said. “I don’t think the fountain is a big enough draw. And they definitely need more people to come in.”

The median age is nearly 60, more than 20 years older than Arizona as a whole.

“The joke in Fountain Hills is that at 9 o’clock we roll up our streets and go to bed,” laughs Wendy Kelleher, a longtime resident and real estate agent who specializes in selling the area. She says the town of mostly retired residents needs something new.

“We’re excited about it because this isn’t just a Fountain Hills attraction, this is an international attraction located in Fountain Hills, which puts us on the map," Kelleher said. 

With schools struggling to maintain enrollment levels, Town Council member Peggy McMahon admits the place known for its fountain also needs a Fountain of Youth.

“Yes, definitely we need it. And I think it’s also–talking about schools–an attraction for young families.” McMahon also believes the center will put it on the map as a destination, not just a pass-thru. “You think of Flagstaff and the observatory up there, a lot of people travel up there to see it—and not just on their way to the Grand Canyon. So, I really think this is going to be the same thing.”

The center’s director Joe Bill says it will give the Valley a chance to catch a rising star in a skyrocketing industry.

“Astrotourism is the fastest growing segment of tourism right now. And we are going to play an important role in the astronomy state of Arizona. What we’re doing is trying to preserve the dark skies that are so important for our billion-dollar astronomy industry in Arizona," Bill said. 

Believing it to be a stellar investment, the state kicked-in 10-million dollars for the center in last year’s budget. The rest is being privately raised with about 6-million left to cover the $25 million project, which is expected to be completed and open to the public in late 2025.

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Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.