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This rendering designed by Earl Swensson Associates shows the future Fall Creek Falls State Park Inn. The facility will feature lodging, a restaurant and conference center in Tennessee's largest and most visited state park (Contributed rendering/TDEC).

The new $40.4 million lodge at Fall Creek Falls State Park is taking shape along the Bledsoe-Van Buren county line, and state officials say the project remains on track for completion next year.

"We are excited about the progress on the project and estimate it to be open in the fall of 2021," Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson Eric Ward said Thursday. "The new lodge at Fall Creek Falls will provide a unique overnight experience for visitors of Tennessee's premier state park while bolstering the local economy for generations to come."

The project is more than halfway finished, Tennessee General Services Department spokesperson David Roberson said Thursday via email. Fall Creek Falls State Park is situated on the Cumberland Plateau between the Tennessee towns of Pikeville and Spencer.

The 95,000-square foot, 85-room lodge "is progressing well and is currently at 57% of completion," Roberson said. Last week all construction trades on the project were fully engaged in various stages of work on the guest rooms, restaurant and banquet hall, Roberson said. Activities included work on exterior elements and finishes, he said.

The contractor is Brentwood, Tennessee-based Bell & Associates Construction. According to Bell's information on design, the new lodge is described as having a "woodsy, rustic appearance with an upscale, modern twist" in the park's natural setting. The facility will have conference and meeting spaces, grab-and-go retail space, a restaurant/bar with indoor and lakeside seating and a large fire pit.

The building will be enclosed in heavy timber framing, natural stone, standing seam metal roofing and lots of glass for views of the lake, according to Bell.

Roberson said the project is fully funded through completion. Nightly rates for the public have not been set.

The project price tag climbed from an early design estimate of $29.4 million in 2017 to $40.4 million when tallied in April 2019. The project — now $11 million more expensive and a surprise addition to the 2019-20 state budget when approved by the Tennessee House — got the green light in November 2017 and demolition began in January 2018 under a separate contract.

In April 2019, Roberson pointed to two primary factors at work in rising cost estimates:

The first was that "construction cost escalation has been more than anticipated since 2017."

The second factor was the "difficulty in finding subcontractors to bid on the project at the location, which has added to the cost of construction," Roberson said last year, and he noted that "it's hard to find construction contractors to work on large projects in rural areas."

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Fall Creek Falls lodge on track for 2021 completion

The way the park facility was run also has been a point of debate in recent years.

Before the decision was made to build, former Gov. Bill Haslam attempted to privatize hospitality services at the park, but the facilities were in such disrepair that no for-profit companies wanted the work.

When the state conducted a visitor survey back in 2013 en route to updates, couples from Jacksboro and McMinnville who visited frequently told the Times Free Press their main complaint was the old inn's rundown condition.

Some recent visitors to the park's social media page seem more concerned about the current closure of the park's pool and whether its snack bar and store are open than the status of the new lodge. Others, particularly previous park visitors from out of state, were very interested in the new lodge's progress.

"I'll be so glad when the lodge opens! We've missed going and hoped it would be complete by our anniversary in May," wrote Georgia resident Jessica Nix.

"I miss coming there so much but I need a place to stay," Janice Haverkos Gundersen of Florida wrote in a post earlier this week asking about the finish date. "I come alone and loved staying at the inn."

According to Chattanooga News-Free Press archives, an $8 million expansion of the park in 1972 included the original inn, nature center, cabins and the 18-hole golf course on what then was 16,000 acres of land belonging to the park. Fall Creek Falls was among five new Tennessee state parks to open that year. Fall Creek Falls' facilities were under construction throughout 1971, according to archives, and dedication ceremonies were held in July 1972.

The origin of the park itself dates back to the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps began work around the mountaintop to address erosion, according to historic accounts on the state's website and in the Tennessee Encyclopedia. The corps began doing erosion and reforestation work in 1937 — a cluster of old Civilian Conservation Corps buildings still stands near the park on Bledsoe State Forest land — and in 1944, the National Park System transferred ownership of the park property to Tennessee.

(Read more: Bledsoe County CCC buildings eyed for preservation)

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 appearance as 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.

Since around 2007, campgrounds and camping facilities have been upgraded in many areas. The existing 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 refurbished, archives show. Parts of the Village Green complex's buildings were renovated and a new irrigation system was installed at the 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 past several years.

Fall Creek Falls State Park in 2020 encompasses more than 29,800 acres and contains more than 56 miles of trails.

The most recent completed addition, a new $2.7 million, 4,800-square-foot Visitors Center, opened in August and shares some design elements with the lodge.

"This will be an excellent and welcoming facility with 85 rooms, a banquet room/conference hall, restaurant and bar, and swimming pool," Roberson said Thursday.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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