Payson has made progress in talks with Arizona State Parks in its efforts to work out a deal to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open, despite the state’s growing budget woes.
Progress in the talks between Payson and State Parks comes in the midst of a confusing scramble by lawmakers and towns to keep parks from closing in June.
The State Parks Board voted to shut down some 13 parks, including Tonto Natural Bridge, after the Legislature swept millions of dollars from various state park funds — including gate fees.
The Legislature has cut funding for state parks by 61 percent since June, even raiding taxpayer-designated funds and in some cases swallowing up private donations made to individual parks.
Payson has been in the forefront of towns offering to partner with State Parks to keep local sites open. Payson offered to run Tonto Natural Bridge if it could just keep the gate fees.
However, State Parks officials balked at striking a deal because they need to come up with $450,000 before June and another $500,000 next year to complete the purchase of the park. If the state can’t make the payments, the site could revert to the previous owners.
Town officials said this week that they’ve made a potential breakthrough concerning the balloon payments.
If the two sides can resolve that issue, then they can tackle other questions.
For instance, Payson officials have said they would need permission to get out of the state’s current contract with a Tucson-based firm to operate the park’s water and sewage treatment systems. Payson officials say they can operate the systems much more cheaply locally.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said he believes that if the state can resolve the problem with the balloon payments, Payson could pay all the costs with gate fees without using extra town funds.
Town officials say that they hope a deal for the town to assume operations in the short term can lead to conversations about a long-term relationship.
The State Parks system has a master plan for Tonto Bridge to reopen the historic lodge, and build cabins. However, repeated legislative sweeps have stalled all those plans indefinitely.
Payson officials say they would like to work out an arrangement in which a private contractor would get a long-term contract and so have the incentive to invest in the improvements necessary to make the park profitable.
One recent study put the economic impact of spending by visitors to state parks at $266 million, most of it concentrated in hard-pressed rural areas.
Recent estimates suggest that closing the parks won’t save nearly as much as officials had hoped, since one-time costs involved in shutting down the 13 parks could total $1.3 million. Moreover, State Parks will have to pay an estimated $3.6 million in ongoing costs, even if the parks remain closed.
Several historic parks are already closed due to a lack of maintenance funds. In addition, Homolovi Ruins and Lyman Lake state parks will close next week — at which point, Arizona will have closed more state parks than any other state in the country.
Meanwhile, other towns have moved to save other parks.
Yuma has already signed a deal to take over operation of a historic park on the shores of the Colorado River.
The town of Camp Verde is trying to negotiate an agreement to operate Fort Verde that State Parks officials have called promising. One estimate suggested it would cost the state $146,000 to close the best-preserved fort from the era of the Apache Wars — about $46,000 more than it would cost to keep it open.
Apache Junction has been negotiating with the State Parks officials to assume management of the popular Lost Dutchman State Park.
The town of Tombstone wants to take over operation of the Historic Courthouse State Park there.
In addition, State Parks officials have also been talking to private contractors who have offered to take over management of many of the parks slated for closure. One of those firms is Phoenix-based Recreation Resource Management, which operates some 175 public parks nationwide.
Payson has been struggling for a year to keep open the world’s largest travertine arch and one of the best known tourist attractions in Rim Country. Two years ago, the state park attracted nearly 100,000 visitors annually, who contributed $3.6 million to the region’s economy.
However, the state shut down the park last year — partly to save money, partly to allow contractors to repair the leaky roof on the historic lodge. Payson convinced the state to reopen the park on the weekends and contributed more than $20,000 to help offset the costs. Even so, visitation dropped to about 65,000.
As the Legislature kept coming back to gobble up funds, the State Parks Board decided to leave open only money-makers like Kartchner Caverns, Slide Rock in Sedona and three recreational parks along the Colorado River.