NASHVILLE — Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson says he doesn't understand why state officials won't consider building a new inn for Fall Creek Falls State Park across the lake from where current facilities, slated to be demolished and rebuilt this spring, are located.
"You don't have the impact on employees and your revenues are still there," Wilson said of state plans to close the two inn facilities and restaurant on April 2 and begin the long-delayed project, estimated to cost $25 million.
State officials, who saw two efforts to privatize park hospitality operations in 2015 and 2017 fail for lack of interest by private companies, estimate their demolition/rebuild approach will take about 1 1/2 to 2 years.
But Wilson said he thinks it may take as long as three years to complete the project, and he remains worried about the impact on employment and local finances in his small county with a population of just under 5,700 people.
The mayor said he's suggested for more than a year to leaders in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which operates the 26,000-acre park in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, to keep existing facilities open with the replacement facility to be built on the other site.
"My question was, move it where everything is at," said the mayor, noting the area on the other side of the lake already has popular park amenities such as the marina, tennis courts, a zip line, a store and a pool. "You're going to foster those businesses right there and there's going to be more for people to do. So it's going to be more of an attraction in my opinion."
Wilson said TDEC officials were told they can't do that because of infrastructure considerations.
"Well," the mayor said, "your infrastructure is there — your electricity, your sewer, the whole nine yards. It's there."
TDEC Communications Director Eric Ward said in an email that officials "did consider the location across the lake.
"However," Ward noted, "it was determined that a new inn at that location would make that area of the park overdeveloped and congested, which would damage our visitors' experience."
The other location also would require "extensive site work and incur more costs," Ward added. "We would also have to move the ball fields, tennis courts and zip line operations."
Ward called the inn project "a critical long-term investment in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties that will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth and prosperity in what is currently a distressed rural region of the state."
The overall reinvestment plan includes the cabins, pool, visitor center, village green, nature center, golf course, sewer upgrade and more, he noted.
"With this in mind, we ultimately chose the site of the current inn — a decision supported by professional consultants — because it has the infrastructure already in place and the 'on-the-lake' location our future visitors will expect," Ward said.
Mayor Wilson also said his understanding is the projected closure date of the inn had been set for 2019, not 2018 and questioned what had happened to that timeline.
"Then all of a sudden, boom, they're going to close it in April of 2018, move it up a year," Wilson said.
Ward said "the closure date has never been 2019."
Meanwhile, Wilson said he and the Van Buren County Commission will host a public hearing today at the park to discuss the state's current plans.
Last week, TDEC officials were at the park, talking to a number of employees who would likely be affected by the inn and restaurant complex's closure.
When the State Building Commission approved the project earlier this fall, members made it clear to TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau they wanted his department to do all it could to help impacted workers.
Department officials say they expect to provide a severance package for full-time hospitality staff that would include a one-time lump sum payment of $3,200, college tuition assistance for two years at any state-funded college, university or technical school as well as potential state unemployment benefits.
The employees also will be placed on the state's Reduction in Force list for one year, making them eligible for consideration for employment in other areas of state government.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's administration twice sought to outsource the park's hospitality functions unsuccessfully to for-profit companies. The governor said Fall Creek Falls and similar resort-style parks with lots of amenities need to be fixed now. He said any outsourcing decisions would await the election of his successor in 2018.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.