Payson Saves Tonto Bridge State Park

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The State Parks Board on Wednesday approved a deal with Payson that will keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open five days a week all summer.

The town will provide $25,000 to offset the operating loss for the world’s largest travertine arch, which contributes an estimated $3.6 million annually to the region’s economy.

The State Parks Board had previously voted to shut down Tonto Natural Bridge in June along with most of the rest of the sites in the state’s 28-park system.

However, the agreement with the town should keep the park and its newly refurbished historic inn open through at least September.

By then, either the Legislature will have provided the parks with enough money to operate the system or the parks will explore a longer-term solution that could turn over management of the park to Payson, which would then hire a contractor that could operate on gate fees alone.

The town has already pledged $17,000 to get the park through the summer. The newly formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge has vowed to raise another $8,000.

Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton said the agreement will provide the stability needed to begin to rebuild visitation. Visits to the park peaked at about 93,000 three years ago, but dropped below 65,000 last year due to the uncertainty and weekend-only hours.

“We have visitors in here every day that want to go to the bridge,” said Stanton. “We get whole buses full of European tourists. Then you have the people bringing their grandkids back because they remember going there when they were kids.

“The economic impact is very large. You’ll have a couple coming up for the day to see the bridge and they’re going to buy gas. Have lunch. Stop in a shop — maybe spend the night — and conclude this is a pretty nice place to live.”

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