Payson and Arizona State Parks officials have made a “breakthrough” in efforts to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open all summer.
The State Parks Board will likely act on the proposed agreement March 18 allowing Payson to take over operation of the world’s largest travertine arch for the key summer travel months, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
State Parks officials have identified a potential source of funding to pay the nearly $1 million in balloon payments for purchase of the property due this year and next, clearing the major hurdle to an agreement to keep the park open, said Evans.
Meanwhile, Payson officials have identified donors and volunteer groups that can contribute the roughly $30,000 in additional funds needed to keep the park open in the course of the summer.
“It’s a major step forward,” said Evans. “We’ve arrived at a general agreement on whatever it takes to keep it open under the current plan.”
The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge will meet this week to discuss fund-raising plans. “Between their help and other private help, we’ll be able to keep it open without tapping into Town of Payson funds,” said Evans.
State Parks officials have now completed the structural and roof repairs on the historic lodge, which once housed guests and a restaurant and has provided space for the gift shop since the State State Parks took over. If volunteers can apply the final finishing touches on the inside, the lodge can reopen as a money-making gift shop.
The current plan would provide a way to pay for the two park rangers and perhaps other state park employees to stay on past the planned June closing. The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge and the existing core of park volunteers would augment the state parks staff, which would remain in charge under the temporary arrangement.
Long-term solution unknown
However, the town and the State Parks Board would continue to negotiate concerning the park’s long-term future, which Payson hopes will include a private contractor that could operate the park, invest in money-making improvements like opening the lodge to overnight visitors, adding cabins and operating a campground.
“State Parks employees would continue to handle all the money (in the interim agreement this summer). We’re simply finding a pile of money to assist with operating costs so we can continue through the summer, which will hopefully buy us enough time to negotiate a longer-term solution,” said Evans. “Ultimately, we want to not only re-open the park, but to open a bigger, better park.”
The deal could provide crucial support for the summer travel season in a Rim Country economy lopsidedly dependent on tourism, with the construction sector still all but dead.
The best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country internationally, Tonto Natural Bridge at its peak drew more than 93,000 visitors annually pumping $3.6 million into the local economy. Weekday closures last year and an avalanche of publicity about state park woes cut visitation to just 65,000.
The park had nearly reached economic break-even at peak visitation, but the deficit has gaped wider as visitation fell. State Parks’ figures put the cost of operating the park at some $170,000 annually, most of that for staffing costs.
The state has identified a source of funding for the $450,000 payment due by June, with a final payment of about $500,000 to complete purchase of the site next year. Without those final two payments, the park might have reverted to the family group that agreed to sell it to the state nearly a decade ago.
The bridge operated for many years as a privately run attraction, with a spring-fed swimming pool, a pick-your-own orchard, cabins, lodge, restaurant and a campground. The state significantly improved access by paving the steep, narrow road down into the canyon, but shut down most of the additional, profit-making elements for lack of maintenance money.
The state Legislature has repeatedly swept operating and maintenance funds for state parks, swallowing up even accounts fed by gate fees. The State Parks system in the last 15 years has nearly doubled the number of sites open to the public, but the most recent round of legislative cuts have reduced the operating budget to levels lower than they stood a decade ago.
As a result, the State Parks Board recently voted to close most of the parks in the system, leaving open a handful of money-making parks — including Kartchner Caverns, Slide Rock in Sedona and several camping and boating parks along the Colorado River.
Cities and towns have been scrambling to find ways to keep nearby parks open. Yuma has already taken over operation of a historic waterfront park there.
Volunteers raising money
Evans said volunteer and fund-raising efforts of the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge will prove crucial. Private donors have already promised the bulk of the $20,000 to $30,000 needed to keep the park open. The Friends will have to raise roughly $7,000 in additional funding. In addition, park supporters hope to mount a “media” blitz including billboards along Highway 87 to make sure summer travelers know the bridge will remain open all season.
Meanwhile, the town will continue to negotiate with the State Parks Board about the future of the soaring, cavernous arch that groundwater and Pine Creek have dissolved in a massive cliff-face of limestone.
Water has dissolved a great passage through the solid cliff face, with a stream running through the middle from one travertine-tinted pool to another. Inside the great arch, water drips from fractures in a ceiling so distant that it seems like a continual pattering of rain.
“I think we’re covered in the current budget scenario,” said Evans.
“If the state budget deteriorates further, then we have Plan B ready,” which would involve finding a private concessionaire to take over operations. “We have multiple concessionaire interested now.”