Van Buren officials weigh legal action to block Fall Creek Falls inn demolition

Van Buren officials weigh legal action to block Fall Creek Falls inn demolition

December 14th, 2017 by Andy Sher in Breaking News

The Park Inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park is seen from the opposite side of the lake.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

SPENCER, Tenn. — Van Buren County elected officials say they may take legal action to block Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to demolish and rebuild the Fall Creek Falls State Park inn complex.

At a special called meeting Thursday night of the Van Buren County Commission, 70 or 80 local residents listened as County Mayor Greg Wilson fretted about how the two-year closure would affect several dozen hospitality workers, as well as local businesses and tax revenues in the tiny, rural Upper Cumberland Plateau community.

Wilson said he intends to discuss the idea of seeking an injunction to block plans by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to close the inn on April 2.

"I do think that's what it's going to take," said Wilson, noting the county and legislators successfully banded together to fight two prior Haslam attempts to outsource park hospitality functions.

Audience members, a number of whom had spoken against closing and tearing down the inn, erupted in applause, and commissioners indicated they were on board.

Wilson also said he has been discussing getting the mayors of Putnam, Bledsoe, White, Marion, Grundy and Cumberland counties to join him in writing a letter opposing the current demolition, rebuild plan.

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Tim Campbell, a Bledsoe County commissioner, told the audience he plans to ask his fellow commissioners about joining Van Buren in seeking an injunction.

Haslam's office had no immediate comment Friday.

The state confirmed last week that it plans to close the inn effective April 2. It comes after two failed attempts by the Haslam administration to outsource the park's hospitality operation. Vendors balked.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat and attorney who joined the effort to oppose privatizing hospitality services at Fall Creek Falls and similar parks, said Friday legal grounds for seeking an injunction to block demolition "could be anything from procedural missteps at the procedural level, the state level, to misrepresentation to state employees.

"There could be any number of things the people behind this scheme have done that would warrant a court taking a second look at this decision and perhaps issuing an injunction," Clemmons said.

TDEC officials met with a number of workers Dec. 5 to explain what benefits they could expect from the state from the anticipated reduction in force. They estimate 31 full-time and 27 part-time workers could be affected.

Benefits include placing full-time workers and restaurant staff on the state's Reduction in Force list for one year, meaning they can be considered for other jobs in TDEC or other state agencies. But there's no guarantee laid-off workers will get those jobs, a major concern.

Several park employees, who spoke on condition their names not be used, worry that as breadwinners for their families they won't be able to find similar work near where they live. The nearest largest city — Cookeville — is about 50 miles from the park.

Some commissioners wonder why the term-limited governor is rushing for an April 2 shutdown only 9 1/2 months before he leaves office. And some worry Haslam's plan is intended to ease a future outsourcing effort with the inn and employees gone.

Haslam told reporters Wednesday in Nashville that "we're just trying to make certain we improve a facility that's woefully substandard."

"We also have to do that within a budget that's realistic and at a time when we can get back up and in business as quick as possible," he said. "So I understand their concern. It's a major tourism draw for them."

The governor added that "our job is, what's the best thing for that county and for the state long term. I'm confident the plan TDEC has come up with is the right plan."

The Tennessee State Employees Association has criticized the lack of job guarantees for employees.

Haslam defended the force reduction plan, saying, "What you see in most service industry jobs is if people are doing a good job and want that job, that job will be available. And that's just true across the board in today's environment and in today's economy."

Plans call for constructing one smaller inn, about 85 beds, along with a restaurant and new conference center on the same site near the park's lake.

Wilson said that before the outsourcing proposal up in 2015, original plans called for a partial renovation of the inn and he continues to believe that's all that's really needed. But he also said that if the state does construct a new inn, it should be across the lake near the marina and other amenities and allow the existing facility to stay remain open until the new facility is finished.

TDEC officials say infrastructure won't support doing that. It would require relocating many of those amenities, adding costs to a project already estimated at $25 million.

Staff writer Andy Sher can be reached at