Fall Creek Falls State Park employees learned Monday that the state is taking a significant formal step today in the plan to demolish, rebuild and privatize the inn, restaurant and conference center at Tennessee's most-visited state park.
A request for proposals on the project is scheduled to be posted on the state's website this morning, officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation confirmed Tuesday.
TDEC officials met with the park's full-time employees at the conference center Monday to discuss how the building project and subsequent privatization will affect the 48 full-time hospitality workers at the park.
"People are mad," Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson said. "The employees are mad."
TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill said Tuesday the state plans to identify its top proposal in late March or early April and that demolition of the 44-year-old building could begin by next December.
Hill called it a $22 million project that will benefit the local, regional and state economy as a company enters to operate the park with "a private sector business model."
Opponents of the project argue that state parks are not intended to be profit centers and that extensive renovation at the inn would be a more cost-effective solution to falling occupancy rates.
Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps said Tuesday that he is "mystified" the state wants to tear the inn down, adding he expects there to be legislative hearings about the matter when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes next year.
"These concession agreements are something fairly new in the industry, especially when it comes to a building project," Stamps said. "I'm not sure we have the expertise within state government for them to negotiate a proper deal. We'll keep examining it. I do know there are some legislators who had no clue the money allotted to parks in the budget would be used this way."
The private company would take over the inn once construction is complete, likely in 2020, and also take over the state park golf course and the cabins at that time, Hill said. The state would still own the building.
Hill said the request for proposals includes stipulations requiring the private company operating the new inn to interview any state park employees who lose their jobs as a result of the project.
The first round of the "reduction in force" would come when the inn closes in preparation for demolition.
Employees who kept their state jobs through the construction process would be guaranteed work with the new company for at least a year once the new company assumes responsibility.
"I understand there aren't that many job opportunities in rural communities," said Hill, former Crossville mayor. "I used to live in one, and still do some of the time. It's difficult, but this is a great opportunity for this area to sustain the No. 1 job creator in the entire county.
"Along the way, we're going to be investing $22 million in what I have to believe is the biggest capital infusion at one time in that county ever."
Hill said TDEC explored the possibility of building the new inn in a different location so that the current facility could continue operating during the construction process, allowing the inn's employees to keep their jobs during that time. But, he said, state consultants highlighted that it would have been too costly to do the necessary site work and install the needed infrastructure at another location in the park.
Hill also called speculation that the state is catering to a specific private partner it already has in mind "absurd."
Stamps said the TSEA will continue investigating the issue.
"At least they are giving the employees some notice," Stamps said. "We wish that maybe it could have come after Christmas instead of right before. But apparently they're in a big hurry to get the [request for proposals] out."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
A previous headline was corrected to clarify that the plan is to privatize the hospitality services.