Fall Creek Falls supporters applaud $22 million in proposed upgrades

Staff Photo by Ben Benton/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Mar 19, 2013 - Fall Creek Falls State Resort Park's cabins could be in line for a facelift. Parks officials are surveying guests who stay at the resort park's inn, cabins and campsites about ideas for updates and improvements. Here, a chilly wind chops the water around some of the park's cabins.
photo Staff Photo by Ben Benton/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Mar 19, 2013 - Fall Creek Falls State Park visitors Rhonda Bigler, foreground, and Deborah Nash cross a swinging bridge for a view of Cane Creek on Tuesday. State parks officials are surveying Fall Creek Falls guests who stay at the resort park's inn, cabins and campsites about ideas for updates and improvements.

Supporters of Fall Creek Falls State Park are lauding Gov. Bill Haslam's call to fund extensive improvements to the park's hospitality services after a recent attempt to privatize state park hospitality services failed because of their poor condition.

The issue of privatization was divisive at Fall Creeks Falls, located in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties not far from Pikeville. Many feared it, saying the jobs and retirement tracks of longtime state employees would be affected if an outside company took over the park's inn, cabins, restaurant and golf course.

Others believed having an outside business operating those services could bring new energy to the local economy.

But local leaders on both sides of the issue say it's good news that Haslam wants to send a total of $21.65 million to Fall Creek Falls to improve those features and build a visitor center - even if the privatization possibility still looms.

"At least they are committed to upgrading the park, and I applaud the governor for that," Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson said. "With privatization put to the side, and hopefully permanently, it'll be good for the employees of the park."

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which operates the state parks, is still considering its next steps in the wake of the unsuccessful privatization attempt and Haslam's proposal, TDEC spokeswoman Kelly Brockman said in an email.

If the $21.65 million proposed for Fall Creek Falls survives the legislative process, it would be the largest sum of state funding for the park that TDEC officials can recall, Brockman said.

It would also come on the heels of a new irrigation system for the golf course and renovations to cabins in the park.

Those fixes weren't enough to impress companies considering bidding for a state contract last year to run the hospitality services. When potential vendors hesitated, TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau requested $55 million for upgrading outdated facilities.

Haslam's proposed budget includes $30 million toward that objective. Montgomery Bell State Park in Middle Tennessee's Dickson County would be the other big beneficiary in Haslam's proposed budget.

In his State of the State address, Haslam termed it "a first step to improving lodging in our parks."

The Fall Creek Falls Inn and Conference Center is a 145-bed hotel built in 1970. The inn's occupancy rate dipped from 44.50 percent in 2010 to 37.20 percent in 2013 as visitors have elected to stay in nicer, competitively priced area accommodations.

"It needs major renovation," Friends of Fall Creek Falls President Brian Bricker said. "It really does. It's nothing local that we had done to make it that way, it's just 30 to 40 years of not putting much into it. We're tickled to death at having the funding."

Fall Creek Falls is the largest and most visited of Tennessee's 54 state parks. It covers more than 26,000 acres in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, both of which are considered economically distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The proposed $3 million visitor center would be a long overdue addition as well, Bricker said.

"That's another thing we've been talking about several years, but I think this time it's probably going to happen," said Bricker, who was opposed to privatizing the park's hospitality services.

Cozy Cabins and Cottages owner Shawn Romano said she is happy about the proposed upgrades to the park, too, even though her business is outside the park along Archie Rhinehart Parkway.

"I am thrilled to hear it," she said. "Because the more that people have a great experience, the more they're going to want to stay and spend money in our county, the more they'll come back and the more they'll tell their friends about what Fall Creek Falls has to offer.

"I'm not in fear of it at all from a competition standpoint."

Romano said she favored privatization but wants to see the park and surrounding communities flourish.

"If there are visitors, that's going to be good for everyone," she said.

Wilson, who opposed privatization, said Van Buren County may lose some hotel tax money if renovations close the inn for a long time, but overall, Haslam's proposed investment in the park will be a positive.

"It is in the back of my mind, though," he said, "that this could be something they're going to do to make it more appealing for bidders or people seeking a contract with the state."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.