Space Center land, facility goes to PUSD in land swap deal, fate of Challenger up in the air

In the wake of the Arizona Challenger Space Center closing to the public Aug. 5, the Peoria Unified Governing Board approved a deal that will bring ownership of the property to the district, along with a cash settlement and a charitable donation in exchange for two parcels of land. [Independent Newsmedia/Philip Haldiman]
By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia 

The Peoria Unified Governing Board approved a deal that will bring ownership of the nearly100,000-square-foot Arizona Challenger Space Center property, a cash settlement and a charitable donation to the district in exchange for two parcels of land.

The land swap comes in the wake of the center closing to the public Aug. 5.

Kevin Knight, owner of the space center and chairman of Knight Transportation Group, will receive two undeveloped school sites owned by the district, one located at Acoma Drive and 75th Avenue and the other at Emil Rovey Parkway and 89th Avenue, in Glendale. Both properties are about 15 acres and appraised at $4.022M combined.

PUSD CFO Kenneth Hicks said the district has owned the school sites for years and are located in places that are not needed as school sites.

Mr. Knight will also make a cash payment of about $127,000 and a charitable contribution of $125,000 to the district, which will be used for closing and renovation costs.

The district is not taking over the Challenger or its operations, only the building and the land, which is appraised at $4.4 million. The deal was approved at no cost to the district or tax payers, and is expected to close Oct. 1, Mr. Hicks said.

“The school properties are assets that are dormant in that we won’t be building schools on these sites,” Mr. Hicks said.

The facility is expected to house a magnet STEM-type program for the district, and staff expects to present an initial plan to the Governing Board Aug. 24.

Superintendent Darwin Stiffler said PUSD wants to remain competitive in an environment where parents have a myriad of educational options, so the logical choice was to exchange land for a space that would allow the district to expand upon its personalized learning model and meet additional students’ needs.

Although there is widespread need for additional classroom space in the northwest region of the district, Superintendent Stiffler said the site is too small for a school, and is not designed for traditional classroom use due to the unique structure of the building, which includes re-created sets of a NASA control room and space craft.

Costs for the 25,000-square-foot facility cannot be determined until the current condition of the building is assessed, he said.

“This is not a full-blown school. It doesn’t have cafeteria, it cannot stand alone, but it has great potential,” Superintendent Stiffler said.

The land swap is the connecting of a full circle, so to speak, as PUSD owned the land previous to Mr. Knight, who has been a long-time supporter of the Arizona Challenger Space Center. He took over financing of the property, but the space center has not been able to make any payments, according to the land exchange agreement.

Mr. Hicks said the land swap has been 10 months in the making, with Mr. Knight offering the property to the district before any other entities. He said the district benefits from the facility staying in the district, adjacent to Sunrise Mountain High School on 83rd Avenue and Lake Pleasant Parkway.

Mr. Knight did not respond to a request for an interview by press time.

“We would like to thank Kevin Knight,” Mr. Hicks said. “He was extremely gracious to come to us first because there could have been many pathways for this deal.”

Arizona Challenger Space Center has been a staple of space education and technology for nearly two decades in Peoria, but its fate remains up in the air. The center closed to the public Aug. 5 and must vacate by Sept. 30. Total moving costs are estimated up to $750,000, and in a previous story, Ms. Swayman told Peoria Today that financial help is needed to offset some of the costs. A GoFundMe campaign has raised $1,250 to help with the move,

The center is privately funded by individuals and major sponsors that include APS, SRP and Honeywell. In 2014, the organization’s liabilities outnumbered its assets by about $1 million, according to a 2014 tax document.

The Challenger Space Center did not respond to a request for an interview by press time.


Quick hit
What PUSD gets: The 25,000-square-foot Arizona Challenger Space Center building and the property it sits on, a cash payment of $127,000 and a charitable contribution of $125,000. Challenger land is appraise at $4.4 million.

What Kevin Knight gets: Two undeveloped, dormant school sites, one located near Acoma Drive and the other at 75th Avenue and near Emil Rovey Parkway and 89th Avenue, in Glendale. Both properties are about 15 acres. The two school sites are appraised at $4.022 million.

Expected close date: Oct. 1

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