As rangers on Thursday bolted an orange square blaring “closed” on the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park sign, Rim Country leaders rallied support to force a reversal of the decision.
A steady stream of people and reporters made their way to the park on Thursday, anxious to have a last look before the indefinite closure imposed mostly to shift staff members to other parks.
State representatives Bill Konopnicki and Jack Brown both agreed to attend a Town Hall meeting next Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the Best Western Conference room on Highway 87 across from the Swiss Village.
In addition, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton and other community leaders have an appointment to meet with state Sen. Sylvia Allen on Wednesday in Phoenix.
“This place does not have to close,” said an indignant Stanton at the entrance to the park on Thursday. “We’re one of 11 communities being held hostage because the state parks board needs the money.”
After the legislature swept $35 million from various state park funds, the state parks board voted to close indefinitely 11 of the 27 parks in the system. Now, state park officials hope the legislature will let them borrow money from the $68 million that has accumulated in the voter-established Land Conservation Fund. House Bill 2088 would allow state parks and other agencies to borrow $20 million from that fund and repay in 2012. Voters originally established the fund to buy state trust land for use as open space around cities.
Stanton said community leaders hope to convince the lawmakers to restore enough money to the state parks budget to keep Tonto Natural Bridge and other parks open. The park draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually and park managers say January’s increase in entrance fees from $3 to $4 would have made the park entirely self-supporting this year.
Economic impact studies show that the park generates $3.5 million in revenue for local, tourism-dependent business. Equally important, the park gives Rim County a national and international identity, as evidenced by how many people every day pull into the chamber’s visitor information office to find out how to get to the bridge.
“Our message (to the legislators) is if you want to have enough people left up here to re-elect you… don’t close this park,” said Stanton.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said town leaders want to talk to park officials and lawmakers about not only saving the park, but expanding it.
Before the state parks took it over in 1993, the privately owned Tonto Natural Bridge played a much larger role in community life. The historic lodge filled up on weekends and the high-end restaurant was sometimes booked weeks ahead of time.
The park had a spring-fed, Olympic-sized swimming pool, pick-your-own apple orchards, a usually full paid campground and access to a chain of swimming holes.
People had weddings on the grounds and the Payson High School football team spent a week or two in training there every summer, longtime Payson residents said.
By contrast, say advocates, the state has let the lodge deteriorate until it is potentially structurally unsound and visitors mostly just walk down to the travertine arch and stare at it from a railed, locked platform.
Evans said he wants to explore the possibility of bringing a private concessionaire to not only make the park self-supporting, but to add back many of the programs and amenities lost in recent years.
The state’s current park master plan calls for the restoration of some of those services, including repairs to the lodge so it could once more become a bed and breakfast business, perhaps with a meeting center.
The lodge has been in urgent need of repairs ever since the state converted most of its maintenance money into operating funds after a budget crisis in 2002.
The state parks board last week voted to seek bids for an estimated $600,000 worth of repairs on the roof and structure. The state hopes local contractors will bid on the work.
Initially park officials said they had to close the park to make those repairs. Later, they conceded that the main reason to close the park was the need to transfer staff to other parks.
Earlier this year, state parks laid off all the part-time and seasonal workers, a personnel reduction of 21 percent.
Those cuts came after lawmakers not only took back most of the general fund money in the parks budget, but then also took three or four times that total from assorted park funds — including the $10 million a year the park gets from the Arizona Lottery.
Rim Country officials decried the decision to close Tonto Natural Bridge, since entrance fees pay both operating costs and the loan used to buy the property. Presumably, the state will still have to make the mortgage payments even if it closes the doors to visitors.
“How the hell do you pay the mortgage if you close the park?” asked Stanton. “So to save money they send staff to other parks that aren’t making money by taking resources away from a fully functioning park that’s paying the whole freight. The fact is, there’s no savings at all to the state in closing this park.”
Stanton said he’s hoping for a good turnout at the 2 p.m. Tuesday meeting at the Best Western, to underscore the importance of keeping the park open to the region’s state lawmakers.