Girl Scouts’ new Parsons Leadership Center hosts year-round day and overnight camps

Rendering by Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects.

Nestled at the base of South Mountain, Camp Sombrero was once a sleepy collection of ramadas and small outbuildings used as a campsite for local Girl Scouts. The site has since been transformed into an inspired state-of-the-art facility designed with the environment in mind.

We toured the new Bob and Renee Parsons Leadership Center for Girls and Women at South Mountain as it was being completed this spring. The center will host day and overnight camps for hundreds of local Girl Scouts this summer. Construction started in 2015, but architect Marlene Imirzian has been working on the design for nearly a decade.

“Plans for the center were really driven by the place,” says Imirzian, noting its unique desert location at the edge of Phoenix. “And also in a way that reflects the values of the Girl Scouts — to be a leader in protecting the environment … to be open to the outdoors and each other.”

The new facility includes a kitchen and large event space with soaring glass windows and a mezzanine that frames beautiful desert views. Open office spaces, activity rooms, a swimming pool, a sports field and a Girl Scout Museum are part of the plans. But for many, the most exciting addition is 15 cabins that will be home to summer campers. While embracing the great outdoors, the new cabins take camping to a new level, with air-conditioning, bunk beds, and bathrooms complete with showers.

Most impressive is what Imirzian and her team tried to keep in mind while designing the facility. Aware that funds and maintenance staff would always be in short supply, the buildings were designed to require as little maintenance as possible. Recycled material was used on all exterior walls (so no painting is necessary) as well as the decks throughout the facility.

The roof was designed to collect water that is reused for the sustainable xeriscaping, and the entire facility was designed to have minimum impact on the desert. Before the project was even complete, it received two American Institute of Architects design awards.

A Green Sash, the symbol of the Scouts, made of a bright green acrylic, wraps around the front of the Leadership Center. Imirzian, who was a Girl Scout herself, hopes this place will instill the values she found in scouting: “Girls being empowered, seeking for themselves ways to help the community and working to make this world a better place,” she says.

While working on the $18 million project — a full eight years before construction — Imirzian allowed anyone who was interested to come to her office to look at her plans. Lots of times, she found herself sharing her team’s ideas with young Scouts — one of whom had an important contribution.

“That’s in the wrong place,” she told Imirzian, pointing to the proposed location of the flag pole. “We do the flag ceremony every morning, that flagpole should be by the cabins!”

“She was right,” Imirzian says with a laugh. Today, that flagpole stands proudly near the cabins, “in the right place.”