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Staff photo by Ben Benton / The new $40.4 million Fall Creek Falls Lodge is taking shape at Fall Creek Falls State Park on the Bledsoe-Van Buren county line Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Demolition of the old Fall Creek Falls Inn took place in January 2018 and state officials say the lodge will be completed by the end of the year.

SPENCER, Tenn. — Fall Creek Falls State Park's new $40.4 million, 85-room lodge remains on course for a fall finish as crews continue work on the exterior, interior and the installation of kitchen equipment, state officials said.

The project that broke ground in January 2019 is now 90% complete, and despite supply issues involving construction materials in other areas of the country, there have been no delays or cost overruns for the project at the 29,800-acre state park on the Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee Department of General Services spokesperson David Roberson said.

"While material supplies across the nation may have been impacted by COVID and other external issues, this project has not experienced material delays," Roberson said. "This project has run smoothly."

Roberson said the construction crews this month have been performing interior finish work such as painting, tile work, carpet installation, ceiling grids and kitchen equipment installations.

"There is also some miscellaneous trade work — mechanical, electrical and plumbing — still taking place, as would be expected on a project of this magnitude," he said.

In the contractor's information on the design, Brentwood, Tennessee-based Bell & Associates Construction describes the new lodge as having a "woodsy, rustic appearance with an upscale, modern twist" in the park's natural setting.

The lodge will feature 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 and surrounding forest, according to Bell.

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 — which grew $11 million more expensive and was a surprise addition to the $38.5 billion 2019-20 state budget when approved by the Tennessee House — got the green light in November 2017. Demolition of the old inn was completed in 2018 under a separate contract.

In the past, Roberson has noted two factors that caused costs to rise. First were construction costs that outpaced estimates in 2017, and the second factor was the difficulty in finding contractors to bid the isolated project on the Bledsoe-Van Buren county line.

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Fall Creek Falls Lodge

Roberson said last week that the price tag hasn't changed since then.

Some local anglers praised the look of the lodge as they set out in a recent midday drizzle.

Richard Walker was kayak fishing on the 345-acre Fall Creek Falls Lake on Wednesday. Mid-week visitors were plentiful despite the weather.

Walker, from nearby Crossville, Tennessee, said what he could see of the new lodge's exterior looked promising but he wasn't staying this trip. He was just there to fish for the day.

"I can't see the inside. The outside looks good," Walker said as he floated a few feet from shore.

He'd had no luck yet fishing, but his visit to the park was more about the experience, he said.

At the boat dock across the lake from the new lodge, Van Buren County residents Anthony Walker and Sonny Davis had rented a boat for a day of fishing and they took in the lodge as they headed out.

"It looks good," Davis said as he settled in at the front of the small craft.

"It ought to stay full," said Walker, no relation to the Walker in the kayak. "I really like the lake, it's clean."

For the Key family of Newnan, Georgia, motel or resort accommodations were only available at a resort outside the park about 7 miles north, Matt Key said while the family unloaded a trailer load of kayaks Wednesday.

When the family returns, the lodge "would definitely be a consideration," Key said.

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson Kim Schofinski said the park has been very busy this season, even without motel accommodations.

"As summer kicks off, visitation continues to be high at Fall Creek Falls and state parks across the system," she said in an email. State parks in 2020 saw record visitation, thanks at least in part to pandemic-induced cabin fever.

While the new lodge isn't ready for guests yet, the park has 222 campsites for tents and RVs, group lodges for 30 to 100 people, 20 two-bedroom cabins and 10 three-bedroom cabins, according to officials.

"We encourage guests to check our website before heading out, to follow all park guidelines and rules and to make reservations well in advance for any overnight stays," Schofinski said.

Schofinski said there was no information available on pricing for rooms at the new lodge.

The park itself dates 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 north entrance park on Bledsoe State Forest land along State Route 30 — 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 people to visit. After the state assumed ownership, it was 1950 before recreational facilities were funded. Swimming facilities were added in 1954. In 1962, the park still had two developed camping areas and boating was prohibited.

Newspaper archives show 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 comprising the park. Fall Creek Falls was among five new Tennessee state parks to open that year.

Facilities at the park were under construction throughout 1971. Dedication ceremonies were held in July 1972, according to archives.

Over recent years, the park has undergone several improvements but none as sweeping as the new lodge.

Since around 2007, many campgrounds and camping facilities have been upgraded, 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's complex of 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.

The most recent addition completed is a $2.7 million, 4,800-square-foot Visitors Center, opened in August 2020. Officials said the center shares some design elements with the lodge.

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

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