SPENCER, Tenn. — The end of an era came to a close on the Cumberland Plateau as the site of the former inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park now is a clean slate for crews set to begin construction of its replacement in January.
Demolition of the old inn is complete and the first work on a new $29.4 million, 95,000-square foot replacement inn at Tennessee's second-largest state park should begin in a few weeks, according to Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Kim Schofinski. TDEC oversees Tennessee's parks.
When state park officials were surveying Fall Creek Falls visitors back in 2013, Tennessee couples from Jacksboro and McMinnville who frequently visit it told the Times Free Press their main complaint was the aging inn, though they loved the setting on the lake.
Renderings of the new inn were released in June. It is expected to be completed in 2020 and will feature lodging, a restaurant and conference center. TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill said in a statement on the plans that the facility "will serve as a symbol of the commitment by Governor [Bill] Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly to revitalize our state park system and sustain rural economic development for the future."
Before the decision was made to build, Haslam attempted to privatize hospitality services at the park, but the facilities were in such disrepair that no for-profit companies wanted them. State building commission members voted to cancel the plan to renovate the inn at their November 2017 meeting. TDEC commissioner Bob Martineau said at the time that the facility's condition "dictated doing a more complete rebuild of that project."
The building commission approved plans to rebuild in late 2017.
Most of the park's recreational facilities, some of which are now eyed for rejuvenation, were built in the late 1960s and 1970s as it grew in popularity. The inn was expanded with exhibit and convention space in the 1990s, newspaper archives show. In recent years, facilities have begun to show their age.
Origins of the park itself date back to the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps began work around the mountaintop on the Bledsoe-Van Buren county line to address erosion, according to historic accounts on the state's website and in the Tennessee Encyclopedia. The CCC began doing erosion and reforestation work in 1937 — a cluster of old CCC buildings still stand near the park on Bledsoe State Forest land — and in 1944, the National Park System transferred ownership of the park property to Tennessee.
Early on, federal officials allowed only the construction of a few vacation cabins, a lodge, horse barns and some trails to encourage visitation. After the state assumed ownership, it was 1950 before Tennessee funded construction of recreational facilities, according to park history. Swimming facilities were added in 1954. In 1962, the park still had only two developed camping areas and boating was prohibited, leaving the park's theme rugged and as natural as its 256-foot-high namesake.
While the 26,000-acre park has undergone lots of improvements and expansions over the years, it has been only in the last decade or so that any parts were eyed for major work or replacement. The work at the inn — funding for which was approved by the state Building Commission in April 2017 — will be the first major new construction at the park in recent years.
Since around 2007, campgrounds and camping facilities have been upgraded in many areas. The pool facility and snack bar were renovated, 20 of the park's fisherman's cabins on the 345-acre lake were renovated and 10 others were refurbished, Schofinski said.
Schofinski also noted parts of the Village Green complex's buildings were renovated and a new irrigation system has been installed at the park's golf course. The park also got a new playground area, roof replacements, restroom upgrades and fresh paint on structures. A canopy challenge course with suspended obstacles and zip lines also have been installed in the last few years.
More work is ongoing.
The park's Nature Center is being renovated with ADA-accessible components, and a groundbreaking for the new facility is planned in 2019, Schofinski said. Other improvements will include resurfacing of a trail along the lake, bridge repairs and replacements and sewer system upgrades, she said.
Schofinski said two capital projects have been requested: a campground loop renovation and renovation of the middle section of the Village Green.
She said officials also plan to add one yurt — a light, round tent stretched over a lattice framework — as a demonstration pilot project.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.