In the wake of the successful campaign to keep the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open, local leaders will sit down with parks officials early next week to exchange ideas and develop plans to attract more visitors and better utilize volunteers.
Ellen Bilbrey, state parks public information officer, will address a meeting of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee scheduled for 10 a.m., Tuesday, at Gila County Community College, formerly the Payson campus of Eastern Arizona College. Bilbrey, who has been asked to talk about successful marketing programs undertaken by other parks, believes the renewed interest in the bridge might be one of the positive outcomes of the struggle between the Arizona State Parks Board, Gov. Jane Hull and the state legislature over budget cuts that resulted in the closure of seven state parks and threatened the closure of the bridge and three other parks.
Scott Flake, chairman of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, agreed.
"Basically we've just kind of established a relationship there and hopefully we can work together and come up with ideas to promote the park," Flake said. "We should have been doing this kind of thing beforehand."
Flake said he has asked the parks board for a list of needs that the community might be able to fulfill. One request, for backup law enforcement, has already been addressed.
"They said when somebody is arrested at the park, there is no way to transport them," Flake said. "I talked to (Gila County Supervisor) Ron Christensen and he said there's no problem having somebody from the sheriff's office come and get them."
Working together to market the bridge is important because the parks department doesn't have a promotions budget.
"We don't have any money for buying any advertising," said Bilbrey. "The state parks system has never had any money (for that), but I can help (the Tourism Committee) place stories all over the country about their community."
Judy Miller, head of the Small Business Development Center at the college and a member of the Tourism Committee, said that group is especially interested in learning more about developing tour packages.
"We're going to try and work on tours," Miller said. "We'd like to put some statewide tours going to several state parks together, and then some that are just tours to our area."
Hull signed Senate Bill 1007 Monday authorizing a supplemental appropriation of $450,000 from the department's enhancement fund that will allow all state parks to remain open for the year. The bill was recently passed during a special session of the legislature.
The seven southern Arizona parks that had already closed because of the budget cuts reopened today (Friday). They are Picacho Peak, McFarland, Lost Dutchman, Oracle, Catalina, Roper Lake and Tubac Presidio.
The bridge and three other northern parks Fool Hollow Lake, Homolovi Ruins and Lyman were slated to be closed when their busy seasons end in the fall. Arizona has a total of 30 state parks.
The decision by the parks board to close the 11 parks indefinitely was made during a parks board meeting in the Valley June 20 despite the protestations of a large contingent of Rim country leaders.
The closures were in response to a 16 percent or $1.3 million cut in the Parks Department budget by the state legislature, part of the cuts made by the state to balance the budget in light of revenue shortfalls caused by the national recession.
Rim country residents packed a subsequent meeting of the state parks board held at the bridge July 18, and deluged the governor, legislators and parks officials with phone calls, e-mails and letters urging them to find a way to keep the bridge open.
An open house and orientation for anyone interested in volunteering will be held at the bridge at 2 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 12.
For more information on the volunteer program, visit the parks website, www.azstateparks.com or call (602) 542-4174.
The Tourism Committee meeting Tuesday is open to the public.