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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee cuts the ribbon at the Lodge at Fall Creek Falls in Spencer, Tenn. on Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

SPENCER, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee opened the $40.3 million, 85-room Lodge Fall Creek Falls on Tuesday, the latest addition to the 29,800-acre state park on the Cumberland Plateau.

Fifty years ago this year, a dedication was held at Fall Creek Falls State Park for an $8 million development project that included a $1.4 million inn that has now been replaced.

The park now thrives with new accommodations and an enthusiastic staff "in one of the most beautiful spots in all of America and now one of the most beautiful lodges in all of America," Lee told a chilly crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday.

Lee praised lawmakers, state officials, construction crews, park officials and government leaders for supporting the project. He said the new facility and other updates will bring more tourism dollars to Bledsoe and Van Buren counties, and he said he expects more funding to go toward state parks in the future.

Investing in parks now is important "if we want Tennessee to remain one of the most beautiful states in the country, if we want our grandsons to stay up here when they're as old as me and appreciate the natural resources we have," Lee said.

(READ MORE: Ribbon-cutting for new $40.4 million Fall Creek Falls Lodge set for Tuesday)

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New $40.3 million Lodge Fall Creek Falls opens

Lee said 35 million people visited Tennessee State Parks and brought in more than $1.8 billion to the state last year.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton said Tuesday the opening of the lodge marked "a great day for the community" of nearby counties and said Bledsoe and Van Buren counties "are going to see their revenue go up" thanks to improvements at Fall Creek Falls.

Sexton said he'd been coming to the park since he was 8.

Brentwood, Tennessee-based Bell & Associates Construction was the general contractor on the project, which features conference and meeting spaces, grab-and-go retail space, a restaurant/bar with indoor and lakeside seating and a large fire pit.

"Our goal was to provide a space where visitors could seamlessly transition from the beautiful outdoor scenery of the state park to modern and relaxing accommodations," Tennessee Department of General Services deputy commissioner John Hull said in a news release issued Tuesday. "We hope Tennesseans and visitors from all over the country will enjoy this state-of-the-art facility for years to come."

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, a couple of months after the project broke ground. The project grew $11 million pricier and was a surprise addition to the $38.5 billion 2019-20 state budget when approved by the Tennessee House. Demolition of the old inn was completed in 2018 under a separate contract.

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Fall Creek Falls State Park inn dedication in 1972

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A limited number of rooms are currently available for reservations, and the restaurant is open with limited hours and limited menu, according to state officials. According to the state park's website, the standard nightly rate for a room with one king-size bed for next weekend is $135 or $121.50 for a Tennessee resident or senior. The standard rate for a room with two queen beds is $145 or $130.50 for a Tennessee resident or senior, and the addition of a twin daybed boosts the rate to $170 and additional bunk beds bump the rate up to $180.

(READ MORE: Fall Creek Falls State Park's new $2.7 million visitor center opens)

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 corps buildings still stands near the north entrance to the 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.

Federal officials early on allowed only the construction of a few vacation cabins, an inn, 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 the earliest plans included an amphitheater, swimming pool, restaurant, a "motor lodge," vacation cottages on land near the water and others built out over the water with boat facilities, hiking trails and a golf course nearby. Early plans sought facilities "large enough to host conventions," according to a Jan. 31, 1969, Chattanooga Times article on a project presentation to the Chattanooga Rotary Club.

(READ MORE: Chickamauga, Tims Ford, Fall Creek Falls among 18 'Bill Dance Signature Lakes' to share $15 million in improvements)

There were also efforts in the General Assembly at the time to block the development of facilities at Fall Creek Falls that included lodging and a golf course. Then-Sen. Fred O. Berry Sr., R-Knoxville, opposed the work because Tennessee "has no business getting into the resort business," and the project was "competition with free enterprise and does violence to the intentions of our Founding Fathers," according to archives.

Berry instead favored using the state's money to purchase additional land for park purposes and other needs at other state parks. Nonetheless, the first bids for earthwork started going out in the summer of 1969, archives show.

According to archives, construction continued through 1971, and the $8 million expansion project at the park when dedicated in 1972 by then-Gov. Winfield Dunn included the original $1.4 million 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.

(READ MORE: Regional conservation association recognizes Chattanooga native for 'distinguished service')

Over recent years, the park crisscrossed with 56 miles of trails has undergone several improvements but none as sweeping as the new lodge.

Since 2007 or so 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.

(READ MORE: Input sought on $400,000 investment at Booker T. Washington, Harrison Bay state parks)

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