NASHVILLE — A Tennessee lawmaker has asked for the state attorney general's opinion on whether a move to privatize hospitality services at Fall Creek Falls State Park runs afoul of state procedures.
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, whose district includes the 26,000-acre park in rural Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, requested the formal legal opinion on Jan. 11 from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III.
The Tennessee State Employees Association also is raising questions about Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's push to turn hospitality services over to a private operator at Fall Creek Falls, long considered the "crown jewel" of Tennessee's park system.
Employees association Executive Director Randy Stamps, an attorney, told the Times Free Press he questions whether Haslam has the legal authority to go forward with the move.
"We believe they're in such a big hurry to rush through this RFP [request for proposals] that maybe they overlooked some pertinent sections of state law," said Stamps, a former Republican state representative.
Bowling said in an interview that employees asked her to seek the legal opinion.
"I'm glad to do that," Bowling said. Park workers in her district have protested over fear for their jobs, and Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson worries about lost revenue for up to two years while a new lodge is built that a for-profit company would run.
"Confusion is always the enemy of good public policy," Bowling said, "and so if we know in fact that's following the code, that's one set of information. If we know that it wasn't, that opens up a different avenue. But we have to know. That's foundational."
Two Democratic lawmakers are convinced Haslam wants to privatize other state parks with similar amenities. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, held a town hall meeting Friday in Spencer, the town closest to the park.
And Stamps said the statute dealing with state parks and contracting "appears to prohibit the outsourcing of state services without it being part of the master plan for parks."
"At this time, we're unaware that this is part of their master plan that's been approved appropriately," Stamps said.
"It could be that they overlooked the law," he added. "It could be that they dealt with it in some way. But right now it appears they're in violation of the statute."
Eric Ward, spokeman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said officials are on sound legal ground.
"TDEC hasn't seen Sen. Bowling's request, but we're confident our proposed effort to ensure the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls is well within our legal authority and we're happy to answer any questions from the attorney general or members of the General Assembly related to this matter," Ward said.
TDEC officials met in December with five companies interested in operating the park's hospitality services, including the inn, restaurant, cabins and golf course. Protesters braved the cold to show their opposition.
Tennessee state parks endured years of neglect under various gubernatorial administrations. Haslam, a determined advocate of outsourcing in facility management and operations, has previously sought to privatize park hospitality services across the state.
The administration first issued a statewide request for proposals on state parks back in 2015. No companies stepped forward — they didn't want to touch it, the administration said, because park facilities were so rundown.
So officials put new money for park capital projects in the current budget and zeroed in on Fall Creek Falls State Park, promising to spend up to $22 million for a new inn.
The proposed contract would be awarded in June and end in December 2029.
The request issued in December calls for "a full-service hotel with a sophisticated, yet relaxed, contemporary design with modern upscale rustic décor."
The state wants a hotel with 75-95 rooms that could be rented for $151 per night. That's double the current $76 tab at the existing 145-room facility, built in 1971. Some critics fear ordinary Tennesseans seeking low-cost getaways could be priced out by conventions or business groups.
Park employees fear they could be out of work for nearly two years while a new inn is constructed or, even worse, lose their jobs or see their pay and benefits cut by a for-profit operator.
In a recent newspaper op/ed piece, Stamps attacked Haslam's effort as a "privatization scheme that will spend more than $20 million of taxpayer money to demolish and rebuild our Fall Creek Falls Inn and Restaurant, and then, upon reopening in 2020, immediately hand over the operations, management and 95.5 percent of the revenue generated by the new complex to a private company."
He argued taxpayers will receive only about 4.5 percent of the revenue generated from their $20 million investment and higher charges at the inn and cabins.
By that formula, he said, "if park visitors book the inn solid year-round, it may not break even on our $20 million investment for about 84 years, or sometime around the year 2104."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.