The lowest bids to repair the historic lodge at the shuttered Tonto Natural Bridge State Park came in at less than half the state’s estimates, which could boost hopes for a quick reopening.
Instead of coming in at the $530,000 estimate, the three low bids among the 19 bidders ranged from $207,000 to $225,000, said Assistant Director Jay Ream.
“We’re all giddy,” said Ream of low bids. “But we had bids that were $207,000 and bids that were $630,000 — so it gives us pause. So now we’re checking it out, saying, ‘Wow, did you read the whole bid package?’”
Ream said the low bids “put more money in our pocket” and that a quick reopening of Tonto Natural Bridge now seems “plausible.”
He said he will put the cost of reopening the park before the state parks board at the May 15 meeting.
“I’m going to give them a plan that works — and they’ll make the determination,” said Ream.
Ironically, the wonderfully low bids have delayed the next step in the discussions about quickly reopening the park. Tonto Natural Bridge draws more than 90,000 visitors annually, but the state parks board ordered it and two other parks closed to undertake repairs and shift staff to other, hard-pressed parks.
Ream said he can’t talk to the contractor about whether he could keep the park open during construction until the state actually awards the bid, since the original bid description didn’t require the park to remain open.
He guessed that the board will pick one of the three low bidders next week. Once the bid is awarded, Ream said the issue of opening the park during construction would be raised at a pre-construction conference.
In the meantime, he held a series of meetings this week to continue working the Rubik’s Cube of the staffing schedule in the wake of an effective 26 percent staff cut forced by a $35-million, mid-year legislative budget cut.
The park system responded to the legislative cut by imposing a hiring freeze and laying off all the seasonal and part-time workers. The legislature swept from various park-controlled funds about eight times as much as the parks got from the general fund this year. The cuts returned the parks to budget levels not seen in 20 years, although the size of the park system has more than doubled in that time to 28.
The parks recently reduced hours in six parks to five days a week. That doesn’t necessarily produce extra rangers to shift back to Tonto Natural Bridge, but it could take some of the pressure off other, seriously understaffed parks.
Ream said he had concluded that he’ll need at least three full-time rangers during the hours Tonto Natural Bridge operates, although that might involve just a four- or five-day-a-week schedule.
He said he will give the parks board a plan to reopen the park that could include the use of laid-off seasonal rangers to get enough manpower to reopen.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said he remains in close touch with state park officials and lawmakers, hoping to broker a solution that will reopen the park. He said he suspected Rim Country groups and businesses could raise money to provide the salary for a part-time ranger if that would get the park open.
Ream said Rim Country officials have offered assistance.
“I’ve got letters here from (State Sen.) Sylvia Allen, (Rim Country Chamber of Commerce Manager) John Stanton calls me fairly regularly. (Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation President) Bill Ensign says he’ll take tickets, lead tours — anything.
“That kind of community support is going to be hard for the board to ignore, if I can present a plausible plan. But I won’t speak for the board — that’s going to be their call.”