Roper Lake safe for now

[Source: Diane Saunders, Eastern Arizonan Courier]

Roper Lake State Park will likely stay open, but its future could lie in the hands of a private company.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wants to maintain state park funding at its current level, according to the state’s executive budget summary, but the State Senate is calling for a sweep of $2.090 million from the State Parks Enhancement Fund and privatization of “some or all state parks.”

The State Parks Enhancement fund is money from gate receipts, according to Cristie Statler, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the parks.

Last year, the Legislature swept money from the Arizona Heritage Fund — a funding source for state parks. That left the Enhancement Fund to pay for repairs or improvements.

“We’ve never been more reliant on the Enhancement Fund than now,” Statler said in a phone interview Thursday. This fund has about $10 million.

She added that the State Senate, House of Representatives and Brewer must agree to transferring the state park money to the state’s general fund.

A “fact sheet” for Senate Bill 1624 shows the State Parks Board must allow a private contractor to operate at least one park that was profitable and one that was not profitable last year. The board must award contracts by Feb. 1, 2012.

Meanwhile, District 5 Senator Sylvia Allen believes “Roper Lake will survive.” She also believes privatization is a good option.

Allen said Friday that negotiations continue for funding the state parks, including Roper Lake.

Rim Country legislators vow to reopen Tonto state park

Jack A. Brown
State Rep. Jack Brown

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — The closure of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park this week provoked a flurry of public outrage, angry volunteers, muddled explanations, contentious meetings, collapsing budgets and blame-shifting lawmakers.  By the time the rhetorical smoke had cleared, all three of the Rim Country’s legislative representatives had sworn to push for the reopening of the park as soon as possible. However, they largely sidestepping blame for the draconian budget cuts that forced the state parks board to plan closure of more than half of its 27 parks — including the Rim Country park showcasing the world’s largest travertine arch.

Sylvia Allen
State Senator Sylvia Allen

The action this week took place first at an overflow public meeting in Payson on Tuesday attended by representatives Jack Brown and Bill Konopnicki, followed by a vigorous arm-twisting session in the Phoenix office of Sen. Sylvia Allen on Wednesday.  The state parks board had unexpectedly closed Tonto Natural Bridge to shift staff to other parks while contractors do roof and structural repairs on an historic building that’s been leaking badly for so long that it has suffered structural damage. The three state lawmakers vowed to get the park open before summer either by pressuring the parks board to fence off the crumbling lodge during the $600,000 construction project or by postponing repairs.  They each denounced the parks board’s decision as “political,” but none directly addressed the impact of the legislature’s decision to take $34 million from various parks’ funds — nearly $30 million more than the general fund contributes to park operations.

Bill Konopnicki
State Rep. Bill Konopnicki

Instead, the lawmakers criticized the parks board for “playing politics” by closing a popular, nearly self-supporting park like Tonto Natural Bridge, which draws about 90,000 visitors annually and contributes an estimated $3.5 million to the local economy.  “We have to get this park opened back up,” said Rep. Konopnicki (R-Safford) at the town meeting held at the Best Western Payson Inn, which drew an overflow crowd of 150. “I just can’t understand what the parks board was thinking … It’s politically motivated to make people yell at the legislature,” he said. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

State legislators agree to Tonto bridge town hall meeting

The closed signs went up Thursday afternoon at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (Photo: Tom Brossart, Roundup).

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — As rangers on Thursday bolted an orange square blaring “closed” on the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park sign, Rim Country leaders rallied support to force a reversal of the decision.  A steady stream of people and reporters made their way to the park on Thursday, anxious to have a last look before the indefinite closure imposed mostly to shift staff members to other parks.

State representatives Bill Konopnicki and Jack Brown both agreed to attend a Town Hall meeting next Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the Best Western Conference room on Highway 87 across from the Swiss Village.  In addition, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton, and other community leaders have an appointment to meet with state Sen. Sylvia Allen on Wednesday in Phoenix.  “This place does not have to close,” said an indignant Stanton at the entrance to the park on Thursday.  “We’re one of 11 communities being held hostage because the state parks board needs the money.”

After the legislature swept $35 million from various state park funds, the state parks board voted to close indefinitely 11 of the 27 parks in the system.  Now, state park officials hope the legislature will let them borrow money from the $68 million that has accumulated in the voter-established Land Conservation Fund.  House Bill 2088 would allow state parks and other agencies to borrow $20 million from that fund and repay in 2012.  Voters originally established the fund to buy state trust land for use as open space around cities.

Stanton said community leaders hope to convince the lawmakers to restore enough money to the state parks budget to keep Tonto Natural Bridge and other parks open.  The park draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually and park managers say January’s increase in entrance fees from $3 to $4 would have made the park entirely self-supporting this year.

Economic impact studies show that the park generates $3.5 million in revenue for local, tourism-dependent business.  Equally important, the park gives Rim County a national and international identity, as evidenced by how many people every day pull into the chamber’s visitor information office to find out how to get to the bridge.  “Our message (to the legislators) is if you want to have enough people left up here to re-elect you… don’t close this park,” said Stanton.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Rim chamber rallies support for Arizona’s Tonto state park

Gov. Jan Brewer

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — Seeking to avert an “economic disaster” stemming from the closure of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton asked the region’s state representatives and Gov. Jan Brewer to attend a town hall meeting in Payson. 

Stanton and other advocates for the nearly self-supporting park that generates $3.6 million annually in economic benefits reacted with anger Monday, when a supposed closure for repairs turned into an indefinite shutdown to shift staff to other parks.  “Tourism is the Rim Country’s economic engine and the loss of the nearly 100,000 visitors would create an even greater economic hardship than now exists in this area.”

In addition to the town hall meeting, Stanton urged the lawmakers to support House Bill 2088, which would avert park closures by letting the state parks borrow money from the voter-approved “Growing Smarter” fund, intended to support parks and open space.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]