Senate speaker says building commission will retain control over new Fall Creek Falls inn work

Senate speaker says building commission will retain control over new Fall Creek Falls inn work

March 3rd, 2017 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

A housekeeper moves between rooms at the park inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Spencer, Tenn. A plan to demolish the park's existing inn and replace it with a new facility that is privately run has apparently been renewed, and the process would take more than 2 years which would displace the more than 60 current employees.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Haslam administration officials will have to take a retooled version of their proposed plan to privatize Fall Creek Falls State Park back to the State Building Commission for re-approval to fix provisions regarding architects and engineers, according to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, shed additional light on the controversy that forced Department of Environment and Conservation officials to abruptly drop a request for proposals from companies interested in operating the 26,000-acre park in rural Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

The plan includes giving whomever is eventually picked as the concessionaire some $22 million appropriated in this year's budget to tear down and build a new park inn and convention center.

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"Well, the administration has backed it up, and I think they're going to go back through the Building Commission process, which is what we wanted," McNally said. "They'll have to have the plan approved there, and then the Building Commission will also have to approve the design."

McNally described the controversy as "somewhere between a bump in the road and a roadblock. It's not a roadblock, but it's not as insignificant as a bump in the road."

Would-be concessionaires were to have responded with their proposals on Thursday. But that was abruptly scrapped, the first evidence being an undated new schedule on the department's website for the process that simply said "postponed."

Park employees, Van Buren County officials, the Tennessee State Employees Association and a bipartisan group of legislators have been battling Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to outsource operations at the park since it was proposed in December.

The administration argues the move to privatize will save the state money, result in better facilities and put hospitality experts in charge rather than the state.

But the tipping point for the General Services Department's freeze on the request for proposals proved to be objections raised by architects and engineers over the plan to change decades-old State Building Commission requirements.

These requirements deal with the entire building project, including the design, engineering and construction process. It's closely monitored at every stage, including how the professionals are chosen.

The request for proposals puts the concessionaire largely in charge of all that, with the project coming to the Building Commission only at the very end. Critics say any objections from commission members could be easily shot down. That has drawn concerns from architects and engineers, along with other issues, including the prospect of the concessionaire cutting costs on design and construction to offset its bid to operate the inn, restaurant, gift shop, cabins and golf course.

Another of critics' concerns: hiring of out-of-state architects, engineers and contractors. The state-based professionals say the existing process has worked well, resulting in well-designed and constructed buildings that last decades without any whiff of scandal.

Last month, Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, held up a bill that reauthorized the Building Commission's continued existence until he had answers to architects and engineers' concerns.

The next week, he had state Treasurer David Lillard, who, like the comptroller and secretary of state, is elected by the General Assembly, before him in committee.

"It appears to be a process that diminishes the role of the State Building Commission at the expense of giving more power to the executive branch, or at least more authority for building to the executive branch," Bell told Lillard.

Lillard said he didn't know "that all the details of that are fully fleshed out at this point, about what the role of the Building Commission will be" if a contract is done.

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On Thursday, Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, expressed relief that there is at least a temporary reprieve. The TSEA has members who work at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Employees worry both about plans to tear down and build a new inn over a two-year period and the possibility of not getting rehired after that by the would-be concessionaire. The concessionaire would be in charge of operating the inn and convention center, restaurant, gift shop and golf course.

Stamps said the administration's plans "absolutely" go around the legislative process, although he faults a "few people" in the Environment and Conservation Department as opposed to Haslam.

But, Stamps argued, the effect is the executive branch effectively bypassing the General Assembly and the likelihood of continued privatization efforts aimed at other parks with amenities similar to Fall Creek Falls.

"It's a policy decision if you're to privatize state parks across the state," said Stamps, noting the administration last year simply included $22 million for replacing the inn, which now goes to the concessionaire. "There's been no discussion of that. They tried to hide it out in the budget."

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who along with Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, has been at the forefront of raising questions, said "if the governor wants to kick-start this again by tweaking something here and there, salve some sort of credibility in this process, that's going to be his prerogative and that'll be interesting to see that if he continues this push."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.