Tennessee postpones deadline for companies' Fall Creek Falls outsource plans

A boat is beached near the park inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Spencer, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - Amid rising questions from critics, the Haslam administration abruptly postponed today's deadline for private companies interested in running Fall Creek Falls State Park to submit proposals.

State Department of Environment and Conservation spokesman Eric Ward on Wednesday said the request for proposals to privatize hospitality services was delayed "to incorporate amended process language which will be made available soon."

Asked why that became necessary at such a late stage, Ward said that because "this is a competitive procurement process," officials under state law "can't share the contents of the amendment until it has been made public."

The administration's process has been under fire from the Tennessee State Employees Association, several lawmakers and, most recently, Tennessee- based architects and engineers, all of whom question the effort to privatize hospitality services at the park, which straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe counties in a remote area of the Upper Cumberland Plateau.

Haslam is expected to push for privatization at other state parks offering amenities like a park inn, restaurant, golf course, cabins and boating. The governor says it's worth looking at if the parks can be run better and ultimately save taxpayers money.

"We can only assume [the postponement is] because concerns have been brought up by many legislators - Sen. [Janice] Bowling has been in the forefront with us as has Sen. [Lee] Harris and Rep. John Ray Clemmons," said TSEA Executive Director Randy Stamps. " We sought an attorney general's opinion, which is still forthcoming."

TSEA has blasted the plan and questioned the legal process used. Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, in whose district the park sits, has asked for a legal opinion on the issue from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

Meanwhile, the American Institute of Architects-Tennessee has questioned aspects of the proposal, including providing $22 million in state money to whatever private vendor is selected to tear down the park's existing inn and rebuild it.

Institute spokespeople said the administration's request for proposal language allows a dramatic departure from decades of close oversight by the State Building Commission, a process they said has resulted in well-designed and constructed buildings without scandal. The commission closely monitors all state building and renovation projects, including approving architects and engineers must be approved.

The proposal would allow the company to select its own architect, engineer and contractors, critics say. While final approval would still come before the State Building Commission, architects and engineers told the Times Free Press they have major concerns, among them that private operators' structural plans would hit the State Building Commission at the last possible moment and leave members vulnerable to criticism if they raise concerns.

The professionals say the existing process has resulted in safely designed and constructed buildings that last 40-50 years. Other concerns include the private vendors skimping on costs, as well as hiring out-of-state architects, engineers and contractors.

Those objections prompted a fresh round of questions last week not only from Bowling, but also Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville. Bell last week closely quizzed state Treasurer David Lillard, a Building Commission member, about the oversight process and Lillard acknowledged knowing little about it and vowed to get up to speed.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, have criticized the outsourcing proposal, as well, holding public hearings at both Fall Creek Falls State Park and other parks believed to be future possibilities for outsourcing where workers are concerned about losing their jobs.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself," Harris said Wednesday. "But, this looks like total and unequivocal victory for state employees and Tennesseans who want to keep our cherished public assets from landing in the laps of profit-driven companies."

Clemmons also thought the delay - it's unclear how long the postponement is - smacked of victory.

"To a person, these hard-working Tennesseans were afraid for their livelihoods and their community's well-being, and they were outraged about the governor's lack of transparency. There was widespread concern that this was a 'done deal,' but Senator Harris and I promised them we'd keep fighting. We did."

He called the announcement of the postponement "a significant victory for rural workers, their families and their local communities."

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