State Parks officials hope the state’s insurance pool will cover the cost of repairing the damage done by burst pipes to the historic Tonto Natural Bridge lodge.
Heavy snowfall in January cut off the lodge and knocked out the power, which caused the pipes in the walls to freeze and burst.
Payson and Gila County had to send crews to rescue the park workers stranded by the storm and water soaked into the walls and warped the floor, said Jay Reams, assistant state parks director.
“Two things happened,” said Reams. “We got that horrendous snowstorm and some freezing temps, which also knocked out the power. We had no way to keep the pipes warm, so they burst. Kind of a double whammy.”
The work on repairing the lodge has been complicated by its listing on the national registrar of historic places, which means the repairs have to remain true to the original construction.
Reams said the repairs will likely delay the effort to get proposals from a private contractor to take over operation of the park, which represents something of a prototype in the effort to make the 28-park system self-supporting.
Reams noted that Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget once more provides no general fund support for the system, but would allow the parks to keep about $10 million in gate fees. The parks system gets another $8 million annually from various special funds.
Studies suggest that visitors to state parks pump about $250 million annually into the economies of rural areas.
“The governor understands the predicament Arizona state parks is in. What the governor has proposed is that we have the same budget in 2012 as in 2011 — so we can maintain the status quo as long as we keep our partnerships going.
“The transition to this new form of management is going to take some time — we don’t want to die on the vine.”
Contributions from Payson, Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe have kept Tonto Bridge open for the past two years, although the best-known tourist attraction in Rim Country shifted to a five-day-a-week operation and shut down during extensive renovations, which cost state parks some $670,000.
Reams said the parks system had hoped to put out a request for proposal to determine whether any private companies want to operate the park. The damage will likely delay that process.
“We were really looking forward to getting our request for proposal out there for the operation of that lodge. I don’t know whether the damage will delay getting the proposal out, but it will certainly delay their starting time,” said Reams.
Reams said that coming up with a lease arrangement for Tonto Bridge represents a top priority and a test of whether such arrangements can rescue the system. The state now owns Tonto Bridge outright, so it has more flexibility in the management than some of the other parks where the state land trust or the federal government still owns a portion of the land.
Reams said the park will entertain a long-term lease if that’s what’s necessary to convince a private contractor to invest in improvements, like rental cabins and a campground. A feasibility study by Northern Arizona University economics several years ago concluded that a concessionaire couldn’t turn a profit just from operating a 10-room lodge, even with a restaurant. That study said a viable commercial operation might need to also restore the cabins and campground that operated when the site was in private hands.
The request for proposals “will put down the essentials of what we’re going to require. Then everything else is on the table — that’s the point of the proposal. We have designs for new cabin sites — we just don’t have the money to put those in. Someone might say, ‘I’ll do a 25-year lease, but I want to put in cabins’ — so those are the kinds of things we’re looking for.”
Last year, the parks system tried without success to find a private company to operate Oracle State Park near Tucson. However, Tonto Natural Bridge has more potential money-making extras than many state parks and came close to break-even several years ago when visitation peaked at about 96,000 annually. Last year, visitation fell to 57,000.
“The idea is that if we can keep our partnerships going, we can maintain the status quo. They’re asking a government agency to turn on a dime and we’re doing just the best we can to get around that dime. But you have 50 years of doing things one way, and all of a sudden you’re trying to change that.”
Reams said he hopes that the public will realize the parks have survived and remain open and that visitation will rise this year.
“The public is thinking we’re closed — those are questions we have to answer every day,” said Reams.
However, if the Legislature accepts the governor’s budget for the parks, only Lyman Lake and Oracle State Park will remain closed.
Two other parks currently closed will reopen in March. That includes McFarland Historic State Park, where a contractor has nearly finished structural repairs and Homolovi State Park, which will reopen with help from the Hopi Tribe.