McFarland State Historic Park/Florence Visitor Center

When it reopens, the Florence visitor center will continue to provide free information on local and regional attractions. But touring the rest of McFarland State Historic Park, at Main and Ruggles streets in Florence, will have a $5 admission charge for adults. The Chamber of Commerce continues to provide tourist information by phone at 520-868-5216 and by mail.

FLORENCE — The Town Council approved various agreements pertaining to continued local operation of McFarland State Historic Park, although some members weren’t entirely pleased with plans to begin charging $5 admission to adults.

The admission charge is part of the new contract between the town and Arizona State Parks.

Councilwoman Kristen Larsen suggested making it only $5 per adult, which would still make it affordable for families.

Florence Economic Development Director Elan Vallender said upon closer inspection of the state’s contract, the charge is in fact only for adults.

Councilman John Anderson said he entirely opposed an admission charge. He said the town is trying to encourage visitors, and the visitor center at the park acts as the town’s “welcome center.”

Mayor Tara Walter said the taxpayers already pay for the park’s operation, “and now we’re charging them again.” Councilman Johnie Mendoza asked if it’s possible to give local residents a discount. Vallender said changing or eliminating the admission charge would require changing the state’s contract.

Councilman Arthur “Snake” Neal said he has a lot of children, and admission charges add up. He said he’d rather see it lower, but he can live with $5 per adult.

The building, constructed in 1878, was the first Pinal County Courthouse. It was later the local hospital for almost 50 years. The visitor center, gift shop and park remain closed for the pandemic, although the Chamber of Commerce continues to provide tourist information by phone and by mail.

Vice Mayor Michelle Cordes noted people normally pay to visit a state park but asked where the admission charges would go. Vallender said it would be held in an account until a proper use was determined.

The Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce, which runs the park and visitor center, isn’t looking to profit from the admission charge, Executive Director Roger Biede told the council. He said it might be used to promote tourism.

Cordes asked for clarification of the contract between the town and the Chamber of Commerce.

Vallender said it’s a “professional services agreement” with the chamber to operate and manage the park for the town. “It does not give the town the ability to interfere or interject in any of the chamber’s normal day-to-day operations of chamber business and otherwise, but it does again govern the chamber’s management and operation of the visitors center and McFarland State Park specifically,” Vallender said.

Anderson also asked why ropes remain around the porch. Town Manager Brent Billingsley said the ropes are for safety, and it is the state’s responsibility for ensuring compliance with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.

The council on Jan. 19 approved three agreements related to McFarland State Historic Park: a contract between Arizona State Parks and the town to manage the park through Dec. 31, 2025; a contract between the town and the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce to manage the park through Dec. 31, 2022 for $55,000 per year; and a revocable license/lease agreement between the town and the chamber to manage the park through 2022.

The town has partnered with Arizona State Parks since 2010 to operate McFarland State Park, and the chamber has managed the park since 2013. A decade ago, Arizona State Parks entered into agreements with several municipalities throughout Arizona to manage its five historic state parks, and the municipalities partnered with local nonprofits to manage daily operations at each park.

The parks were facing immediate closure due to state budget constraints but have remained open with these partnerships, according to a town staff report.

The council also voted to accept a grant from the Arizona Department of Homeland Security for $102,058 to buy two license plate readers and a narcotics analyzer to be used for “Operation Stonegarden,” a cooperative effort to suppress border-related crime and violence.

Florence Police Chief Bruce Walls told the council the license plate readers will give officers immediate knowledge of stolen vehicles and wanted persons, and the narcotics analyzer will enable officers to scan suspected controlled substances in a single, definitive test.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.