This month, Fort Tuthill is the scene of wide-eyed wonder, as believers take in the bustling excitement of Santa’s workshop. The North Pole Experience is open for its first season in Flagstaff after moving from Greer earlier this year. Along with being a quicker car ride for families traveling from the Valley, Santa, Mrs. Claus and the many elves are happier to have 250 percent more space for making magic
For Scott Pace, the move is a Christmas dream come true. As owner of North Pole Experience, Pace drove to Flagstaff when it appeared the Wallow Fire would take the town of Greer. Fortunately, the town was spared, and Pace discovered a new realm of possibilities for his seasonal venture. The decision to relocate also created new economic opportunities for the greater Flagstaff area.
Moving the North Pole Experience to Flagstaff involved a public-private partnership. Coconino County Parks and Recreation Director Judy Weiss, who oversees operations at the historic Fort Tuthill, facilitated it. Pace was impressed by Weiss, who worked on his behalf with the county and city governments. “It is the best business experience I’ve had so far,” Pace added.
The agreement works well for the county, too. Before Santa could move into the 1930s ammunition building, a heating system needed to be installed and the crumbling floors were repaired. Because the North Pole Experience is seasonal, the county will use the building most of the year. A new vehicle storage building on the grounds was also part of the agreement, so indoor parking is always available for county vehicles.
Weiss has been working in government for three decades and she understands that public-private partnerships are the new normal. “Whether it’s economic impact or recreational use, it provides a unique opportunity that no one entity can do by itself,” said Weiss of the numerous partnerships operating at Fort Tuthill. “We have to partner because we all have limited resources, so coming together it makes a fantastically unique experience.”
But governmental agencies and the business world often operate on different timetables. Weiss and others worked at what could be considered record time for government, so that the North Pole Experience could be open this season. “Where government is used to moving at its own pace because of public involvement or other constraints, the private sector is used to starting a business quickly,” she said. “So we tried to expedite it.”
Fort Tuthill hosts the annual County Fair each year. The park has more than six miles of hiking and biking trails, an equestrian area, rental cabins, a campground and picnic ramadas. The 411-acre facility is home to the Pepsi Amphitheater, operated by the Phoenix-based R Entertainment North. And earlier this year, another public-private partnership opened: Flagstaff Extreme. The outdoor adventure course utilizes the tall ponderosa pines for ziplining, suspension bridges and other elevated adrenaline boosters.
The park may be expanding in the future, incorporating an additional 220 acres of adjacent state trust lands. The expansion, and the county’s openness to new partnership ventures, could bring other business to Fort Tuthill, solidifying its status as a year-round recreation destination.
All of this is good for the bottom line. A study conducted by Northern Arizona University’s Rural Policy Institute shows the Pepsi Amphitheater brings a $2 million annual economic impact to the Flagstaff region. Based on that study and estimates from the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona (ECoNA), Weiss thinks the annual infusion from the amphitheater, Flagstaff Extreme and North Pole Experience will be near $12 million.
Revenues will be good for the taxpayer because the facility will not be a drain on the general fund, says Weiss.
“Parks are part of a community’s quality of life. Especially a community like this one where people are so passionate about open space and their parks.” Profits from the Fort Tuthill ventures can be redirected into improvements for the park, which has a lot of original infrastructure.
This type of thinking earned Judy Weiss recognition by AACo, the Arizona Association of Counties. Following the interview with Flagstaff Business News, Weiss headed to the Valley to pick up a Summit Award, recognizing the county’s public-private partnerships. The AACo’s communications director, Jeff Curwen, says Weiss earned the Summit award because of the economic benefits of the undertakings. “There was no cost to the county in partnering on theses projects,” explained Curwen. “Each of them [the partnerships] greatly improves the Parks and Recreation’s ability to achieve its mission.”
What will the future hold for this county park? Likely, more of the same. Flagstaff Extreme could open the door for other extreme sports like adventure racing and mud racing. The ideal complement to the North Pole Experience could be sleigh rides, weather permitting. And why not zorbing? People around the world are discovering the joy of getting inside a human-sized plastic ball and rolling down a hill. If a private company had the entrepreneurial spirit and the activity made sense for the county, it is worth a look, said Weiss. “It increases our revenue generation and it increases our ability to serve the public.” FBN
The North Pole Experience begins at Flagstaff’s Little America Hotel. One of Santa’s elves guides groups to a magical trolley, which travels through a portal to the North Pole.
Coconino County Outreach Coordinator Regina Salas recommends the experience for kids and kids at heart. “Getting into the holiday spirit is a delight. The interactive experience with the elves and Santa, it awakens your inner child, the spirit of giving and being thankful,” said Salas.
At print time, there were still a few available slots for this year’s North Pole Experience and owner Scott Pace said they may add additional dates. Reservations also are available for 2013. FBN