Arizona State Parks employees transformed into sales agents Tuesday, leading an open house tour of a historic lodge at one of the area’s best-known landmarks in an attempt to entice a concessionaire into taking over operations.
The lodge at Tonto Natural Bridge has largely gone unused since the parks department bought it in 1991. The stunning, three-story building features a gift shop, dining room, 10 guest rooms on a middle level and an upper story with panoramic views of the Pine Creek Valley.
The parks department has spent $1.8 million to shore up the integrity of the structure and is anxious for someone to take advantage of the lodge’s charm and money-making potential while relieving the burden on the cash strapped parks department.
Construction work prompted the intermittent closure of the park. This on top of the closures in 2009 and confusion surrounding new operation hours, drove down visitation.
Visits to the site peaked at 94,000 in 2007, but tumbled to 58,600 in 2010.
In 2011, visitation started to tick back up, ending the fiscal year with 66,500 visitors.
However, since the park raised admission fees in March 2010, revenue has risen even more. This year, ticket sales brought in $277,000, more than $100,000 more than in 2009 when the park closed for two months.
With park visitation on the rebound, officials say Tonto Natural Bridge Lodge could turn a profit.
“You could build cabins south of the lodge,” said Jim Garrison, state historic preservation officer, pointing to a large, grassy knoll interrupted by a few old fruit trees.
“And the kitchen could be upgraded,” he said as he led a tour of interested contractors and resort operators through the white, outdated kitchen.
Upstairs, each of the guest rooms features a wall-mounted sink and rustic wood furniture. Some have an adjoining sunroom. Contractors fiddled with door handles, opened cabinets and scanned the rooms up and down, pointing out every water stain and crack. Central bathrooms outfitted with claw-foot tubs give the building a cowboy, rustic feel that the state parks says it wants to keep if someone takes it over.
“The worst thing in the world is an empty building, especially a historic building,” Garrison said. “Our desire is to see it used.”
Through Sept. 29, the state park is collecting requests for information, a way to solicit feedback and recommendations from the private sector on the interest in reopening the lodge.
From a bed and breakfast, campground, restaurant to new outdoor activities, all suggestions from interested parties are welcome, said Margy Parisella, Arizona State Parks architect.
First constructed in 1925 by the Goodfellow family, the lodge attracted in its heyday as many as 60 guests for weddings, dances and meetings. Beyond the lodge were six small guest cabins, an orchard of fruit trees, grapevines and a 125-foot, spring-fed swimming pool.
On Tuesday’s tour, the pool looked more like a pond with algae-green water, lily pads and a school of bright orange fish. Park Manager Steve Jakubowski said it would make a great trout fishing activity for a concessionaire.
The pool is still fed by the spring, which also provides drinking water for the lodge. The calcium carbonate rich springs helped form the Tonto Natural Bridge.
Like the water found at Havasupai Falls, the spring contains the same travertine that in the creek spread out and choked the gorge. An arch formed over thousands of years and now stands 183 feet high and 393 feet long. Five brilliant, clear pools filled under the bridge, with stalactites hanging from the roof. Pitted throughout the walls are pocket caves, which visitors used to climb up to with a series of ladders.
The unique site first attracted the Apache Indians 500 years ago, who hunted and farmed the area. The Goodfellows modernized the area with a steep entrance road, improved trails and lodging.
With the improvements came visitors and then four decades of new owners. The park was passed through several families, while the parks board planned and plotted for a way to acquire it.
After a few failed attempts, the bridge finally became Arizona’s 26th state park in 1990.
In 2009, it looked like the park might close indefinitely after the state drastically cut the Arizona State Parks budget.
Payson led the efforts to save the Tonto Natural Bridge and in partnership with the Tonto Apache Tribe, Star Valley and the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, raised enough money to keep the park open through the season.
“We all worked together to ensure the bridge stayed open, knowing the importance of tourism in the Rim Country,” said Derek Shreiner, Friends president.
While state parks funding has not been completely restored, the bridge is once again making money.
The volunteer Friends group is now raising funds to market the bridge on television and billboards and pay for two capital improvement projects, Shreiner said.
Friends has plans for a new ramada and renovated information kiosks.
“The Friends do not have a formal stance at this point in time for the RFI,” he said. “We do believe the operation of the lodge could improve the park, but need to see the level of interest from concessionaires and what services they propose to Arizona State Parks.”
Parisella said the parks board is hoping for sustainable ideas.
“You tell us,” she said.
“The piano needs tuning,” one contractor joked, referring to a piano and organ that have sat unused for years. The organ especially needs help after being shot in the 1970s, Jakubowski said.
Reportedly, a domestic dispute led one guest to fire off a shot, missing the intended target and striking the side of the organ.
The lodge is full of unique stories like this, Jakubowski said.
The state parks board is accepting RFIs through the end of September and hopes to send out a Request for Proposals early next year. For more information on the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, visit www.tontobridge.com.