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NASHVILLE — In a stinging setback to its privatization effort for Fall Creek Falls State Park, the Haslam administration's proposed contract to outsource hospitality services has failed to draw a single bid from would-be operators, the Times Free Press has learned.
Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, confirmed Wednesday there were no bidders for the request for proposals.
She said the department, meanwhile, is thankful the governor and state lawmakers "allocated funding to enhance the user experience at Fall Creek Falls, and we will evaluate how to best manage those resources as we move forward."
It's the second major blow to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's drive to outsource Tennessee's hospitality services at state parks. In 2015, a similar effort to outsource hospitality operations at 11 state parks also failed to draw any interest from private vendors.
The administration said that was because of the shoddy shape of state park facilities because of years of state neglect by several governors.
Haslam has argued that park services like restaurants, golf courses, inns and marinas are great examples of areas where private vendors can do a better and cheaper job than workers in the government he heads.
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As a result of the 2015 failure, the administration plowed $55 million in capital improvements for parks because of the dismal shape of many at the public parks.
Last year, it was revealed that TDEC had its own ideas that included focusing solely on Fall Creek Falls, located atop the Upper Cumberland Plateau in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties. It's long been considered the crown jewel of Tennessee's park system.
The TDEC proposal included giving the winning operator $20 million in public funds to tear down the park's existing inn and building a new one. The plan drew heated opposition from park workers and the Tennessee State Employees Association.
As some lawmakers like Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, in whose district Fall Creek Fall is located, became alarmed, the fight was joined by politically powerful architects and engineers. They fretted the vendor would short-change them on their services or use out-of-state professionals.
They also charged the proposal largely sought to bypass the State Building Commission, which strictly oversees building projects in areas ranging including designer and construction company selection. They say the process has produced solid buildings in a scandal-free process for at least a half century.
Other lawmakers began joining the fray. The State Building Commission, controlled by legislative appointees, declared the vendor would largely operate within their process. That forced officials with TDEC and General Services to amend the state's request for proposal.
In the new state budget that goes into effect July 1, Haslam provided another $52 million for various parks with critics charging it signaled yet more outsourcing.
Meanwhile, the administration has awarded a contract to Chicago-based real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle that could include facilities management of higher education buildings.
A bipartisan majority of lawmakers later objected, calling for a suspension of all outsourcing efforts pending legislative study. The JLL contract is being reviewed by Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson and state bond counsel.
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In a subsequent email to the Times Free Press, Schofinski said the state's request for proposal "included a flat amount for construction costs without any contingencies for additional expenses. The potential financial risk for respondents appears to be unknown demolition costs that would be the responsibility of the concessionaire."
Schofinski referred a reporter over to the state's Central Procurement Office, housed in the Department of General Services, for more information.
In an email, General Services spokesman David Roberson shed little light.
"Our attorneys tell me that, under [state law] a procurement file is not considered a public record until such time as all proposals have been evaluated," Roberson said. "At that time the entire file becomes public record."
But there's a Catch 22 loophole that could mean the public never will know what happened.
Because "there were no proposals received – no bidders responded – there is nothing to evaluate, and thus the file does not ever become a public record," Roberson said.
He added that "since the file contains no proposals, it is doubtful it contains much of anything except the original RFP, and the RFP was posted online, so I don't think you're missing any useful records."
What remains unclear, however, is what letters or memos from would-be interested companies, if any, specifying concerns are now in the secret file.