The Rim country made a forceful, reasoned and at times eloquent case for keeping the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open at a meeting of the Arizona State Parks Board held Thursday at the bridge.
The dining room at the lodge was packed to overflowing, with attendees representing a broad cross-section of the Rim country spilling out onto the porch and grounds where they had to listen to the meeting through open windows and doors. Park officials recorded 90 vehicles carrying 140 people entering through the main gate for the meeting.
After hearing a brief overview of the budget circumstances necessitating closing the bridge and 10 other state parks "indefinitely," more than 20 Rim country residents addressed the parks board. Their remarks ranged from a fact-filled presentation complete with visual aids and a list of possible solutions by Scott Flake, chairman of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, to impassioned pleas from Anna Mae Deming, local matriarch who practically grew up at the bridge, and Bob Ware, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.
When the public comments portion of the meeting was over, the board "expressed a positive inclination to find a solution to the indefinite closure of the bridge, and authorized the parks staff to make necessary adjustments to the times the bridge is open and fees charged," Ware said.
Flake was optimistic an attempt will now be made to at least avoid a total closure.
"They authorized the staff to sign any agreements with communities so they didn't have to wait for another meeting," Flake said. "I think what they're planning on doing is at least keeping it open three or four days a week for the three slowest months and then re-open it full time again in the spring. We're going to keep pushing to keep it open full time, but they may not be able to work that out."
During his presentation, Flake told the board that the bridge is a vital "economic driver" for the community. But, he added, "the real key is solutions that bridge the gap." Among those he proposed to make up for a $142,000 operating revenue deficit at the bridge:
Raise the park entrance fee from $6 to $8.
More creatively and effectively promote the park.
Establish the bridge as a tour bus stop.
Add new amenities like camping, dining and meeting facilities.
Reduce costs by using more volunteers. Representatives of the Payson Packers and several other local groups in attendance at the meeting pledged to provide those volunteers.
Postpone improvements and upgrades to the park.
Reduce operating hours.
Apply for grants.
Lease or sell the park if the state can't keep it open.
Deming, whose family originally owned the bridge, recounted its colorful history and closed her remarks with a passionate plea delivered in a quavering voice.
"This bridge must remain open year-round," she said. "Its excellent employees must have full time jobs to maintain its beauty. The Tonto Natural Bridge is a hallowed spot, my second home, and a treasure of Gila County."
"You heard the term 'our bridge' over and over today not 'the bridge.'" Ware said. "This is like a child we all love or a grandparent we all admire."
Suzanne Pfister, chairperson of the parks board, opened the meeting with a clarification of that body's position regarding park closures.
Mark Siegwarth, assistant director for administration, told attendees that every one of the parks' major funds has been reduced dramatically by the state legislature this year as part of an attempt to reduce a state budget deficit, including a $1.3 million cut in general funds and a $400,000 reduction in Heritage funds.
"Added all together, we are down 41 percent," Siegwarth said. "If it were down five or 10 percent, we might be able to do it, but 41 percent is huge. We took all the money we could out of administration, but we still have to come up with $700,000."
A possible stopgap solution was explained by Jay Ziemann, assistant director for external affairs.
"The Growing Smarter initiative passed by voters provides $20 million for the acquisition of state trust land," Ziemann said. "The interest on that money comes to state parks to administer grant funds. We would like to take that interest and use it instead to help fund the parks."
The state legislature would have to pass legislation to allow the Growing Smarter interest to be used for that purpose, and the parks board hopes to convince the legislature to take the matter up in a special session on the death penalty in August.
If that option is pursued, Pfister told attendees at the meeting that they will need to support the effort by contacting their legislators Jack Brown at (602) 542-4129, Jake Flake at (602) 542-5219, and Debra Brimhall at (602) 542-5861.
In the meantime, Ellen Bilbrey, parks public information officer, promised the staff will be looking into the ideas and offers presented at the meeting.
"We will start working with the community to collect all the things they have offered, the ideas and everything, and try to use them," Bilbrey said. "The problem is we have to have the money in the budget before we can spend it or we will go bankrupt by spring."
Bill Feldmeier of Governor Jane Hull's office was impressed by the cooperative spirit that prevailed at the meeting.
"What we heard today are some very good possibilities," he said. "In times of crisis, people start to brainstorm and say what are some non-traditional ways we can fund this besides out of the general fund. That's what we're hearing today, and it opens up new avenues to partnerships."