Tonto Natural Bridge State Park improvement wanted

[Source; Ginger Rough, the Arizona Republic] –The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, with its spectacular views and dramatic sight lines, routinely draws more than 60,000 tourists every year. But most of those visitors only stay a few hours. Now, Arizona State Parks is hoping to change that – possibly by partnering with a private firm to operate a small hotel or a restaurant at the Payson-area site. “The lodge that is up there has never really been open to the public – it’s a potential asset that has never been used,” said Jay Ziemann, assistant director of Arizona State Parks. “But there’s a lot of potential to broaden the market to those that might like to come up, visit and stay there.”

Tonto Natural Bridge, about 14 miles northwest of Payson, is one of the state’s newer parks, added to the system in 1990. At its heart is the bridge, believed to be the largest natural travertine trestle in the world. It stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point. Tourists come to the park to camp, hike and explore the area’s trails and waterfall. But facilities at the site are somewhat limited and include only a gift shop, some picnic-table areas and a few portable restrooms.

The park’s historic Tonto Lodge was built in the 1920s. The state purchased it along with the park and has just finished bringing it up to code – installing fire-suppression systems and making sure it has adequate sewer and drinking-water systems. The lodge features 10 upstairs bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms.

The state, which has limited money and manpower, is hoping the private sector will give it guidance on how to structure a formal partnership agreement that might ultimately result in the lodge being opened to the public. Last month, the parks department had a meeting with potential partners, and they have now put out a formal “request for information.” It’s a slightly unusual step. Arizona State Parks is hoping that by asking the private sector what they might be interested in doing, they can structure a better request for a proposal that will ultimately result in a solid plan and successful partnership. Ziemann said the state is hoping to get information back from private operators before the end of this month.

Parks officials will then issue a formal request for proposals based on the feedback they receive. “We’ve offered (requests for proposals) in the past, and we haven’t gotten very much in the way of responses,” he said. “We are hoping that if we find out exactly what they might be interested in bidding on, we’ll have better luck.” Options could include building individual cabins with private baths to expand the lodge’s capacity and make it more attractive for overnight guests, as well as running a small cafe at the main property. Recent visitor surveys by the parks department found that 57 percent of people touring the park said they would be interested in using a restaurant or a snack bar.

Arizona State Parks has increasingly turned to public-private partnerships to keep its network of 30 parks open in the wake of years of budget cuts. Tonto Natural Bridge is no exception. A wide range of community partners – including Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, the city of Payson and the town of Star Valley – raised money through bake sales and other similar means last year to give State Parks more than $10,000 in operating funds for the site.

The park is a critical part of the local economy, said John Stanton, vice president of Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. The most recent study available, by the Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center at Northern Arizona University, found that the park had a $3.56 million economic impact in fiscal 2007. “Financially, up here, we are driven by tourism,” he said.

Derek Shreiner, president of Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge, said his organization welcomes any efforts to enhance the Lodge’s operations – especially if it keeps visitors in the park longer. “For as long as I’ve been involved, it’s been day use only,” Shreiner said. “It’s significant to us. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

Arizona Nonprofits Help Rescue State Parks

[Source: Nancy Knoche, The NonProfit Quarterly] – Arizona’s shimmering sun, sweeping sunsets and sacred sites of Sedona draw millions of tourists to its state parks and historic sites. Community leaders recognize that parks are economic drivers in Arizona, having a $266.4 million dollar impact in fiscal 2007. When the 2009 state legislature slashed the state park budget, civic-minded individuals knew it was up to them throw a “financial lifeline” to these state treasures. Today 26 of the 27 state parks are open, but their long-range future remains in question.

Fourteen Arizona parks are remaining open thanks to partnerships developed by state agencies, nonprofits, and local communities. For example, when civic leaders of Payson and Star Valley learned that neighboring Tonto Natural Bridge State Park was scheduled to shut down, they knew they had to act fast in order to preserve the park’s $3.56-million economic impact on the local economy. Despite the fact that both communities faced their own financial challenges, they teamed up with the Friends of theTonto Natural Bridge State Park to cover the park’s operating shortfall by holding fundraising events and engaging citizens in saving the park. Today, the park is expected to be in the black by fiscal 2012.

Elsewhere, a fundraiser for the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum brought in over $70,000 kept the site open while it gathered more support.Red Rock State Park in Sedona is being aided by the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park. Nonprofits are increasingly part of a larger network of agencies, cities, and state parks that have drafted new written agreements regarding park funding and operations. Park managers have shortened hours, raised fees, and closed parks during low seasons. Today, 13 of the 14 state parks with these agreements are operating in the black. Statewide, nonprofit and civic leaders have raised more than $820,000 to keep the parks going.

Critics warn that this is just a “Band-Aid” approach. Several of these agreements expire in a year and future funding is uncertain. Cities and counties continue to be strapped for money. The good news is that the parks are open and continue to generate money for local economies. But how long will visitors be able to enjoy these Arizona treasures? Right now, no one has an answer.

New Rye billboard draws attention to Tonto Natural Bridge

[Source: Alexis Bechman, Payson Roundup]

If the size of the Tonto Natural Bridge wasn’t big enough to attract visitors, an ad in Rye is sure to catch their attention.

On Tuesday, a 40-foot billboard was plastered with the bridge’s mug shot along with the message “Visit the World’s Largest Natural Travertine Bridge.”

Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park hope the ad will attract more visitors to just one of many state parks struggling to stay open with attendance numbers down along with state funding.

In 2008, approximately 93,000 people visited the bridge, but in the last two years, visitation has dropped considerably due to short-term closures and rumors of permanent closures by the state of Arizona.

The Friends group, along with Gila County, the Town of Payson and the Town of Star Valley, have worked tirelessly with the Arizona State Parks Foundation and the Arizona State Parks Board to assure the park remains open.

Currently, the park is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $5 for adults over the age of 14 and $2 for children ages 7-13.

The Friends group worked with American Outdoor Advertising to design and fund the billboard.

“The Friends group cannot thank American Outdoors enough for all they have contributed to make this billboard possible,” said Friends president Derek Shreiner. “Troy Carlson, an account executive for American Outdoors, was fundamental in the production of the sign and is providing the Rim Country with a major opportunity to attract visitors.”

Visitors to Tonto Natural Bridge not only help keep the bridge open, but also help generate sales to local Rim Country businesses, Shreiner said.

The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge is looking for new members to assist in the continuation of the bridge operation. Assistance can be provided through volunteer efforts at the bridge, financial support and volunteering for Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge activities.

For more information on becoming a friend or volunteer, call the chamber of commerce at (928) 474-4515.

Current board members include Shreiner, vice president John Stanton, treasurer John Wilson, secretary Margaret Jones, Bill Armbruster, Cameron Davis, Bill Ensign, Kenny Evans, Bill Rappaport, Courtney Rogers and Bob Sweetwood.