The State Parks system wants to find a private contractor to operate the lodge and gift shop at Tonto Natural Bridge, the world’s largest natural travertine arch.
This month, the State Parks Board approved a plan to ask for proposals from vendors to operate the park, the refurbished, historic 10-room lodge, the food service operations and perhaps also additional improvements.
However, first the battered parks system will have to figure out what to do about extensive water damage caused in early January when the deep freeze burst pipes in the ceiling, causing a flood in several rooms.
That same storm buried the steep dirt road leading down to the refurbished lodge and the soaring, cavernous arch dissolved in a massive travertine formation. Payson sent a public works crew with volunteers and truck-mounted snow plows to bring out park workers stuck in the snowbound lodge.
“Within a couple of hours we had plowed our way down there to get the people stuck at the bottom of the hill out,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
The plan to turn Rim Country’s best-known tourist attraction into a money-making operation comes as the once-booming 28-park system heads into another tough budget year.
The state has drawn up several plans that have the potential to turn Tonto Natural Bridge into a profitable operation.
The park had nearly reached break-even four years ago, when visitation peaked at 96,000. At that time, a study estimated that out-of-town visitors to the park contributed about $26 million annually to the local economy.
Many park advocates say that re-opening the 10-room lodge, a once popular restaurant and rebuilding the cabins and campground that operated when the park was in private hands could make the operation self supporting.
The state parks system invested some $675,000 in carefully hoarded construction funds on repairing the roof and structural problems, in hopes that the four-level lodge could once again operate.
The state also paid off the final million-dollar installment needed to own the land free and clear. The lodge has 9,000 square feet and a useable basement area, plus a commercial kitchen.
The board approved the plan to seek a vendor willing to take over operations of the lodge and related facilities, with the state parks system continuing to operate the park itself. The parks staff will issue a request for proposals in the spring to launch a four-month bidding and review system.
Evans said the town has been working with the state parks system on the idea and that he knows of several vendors likely to bid on the contract. The town this year contributed $24,000 to keep the park open, with additional help coming from Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe.
“We’ve said from the outset that the fate and the future of Tonto Natural Bridge is to expand it back to its glory days. We’ve seen nothing that alters our perception. We still believe that is the most effective long-term solution.”
Evans said that the financial crisis may spur the state to take the steps necessary to make the park a profitable operation with deep connections to the community.