Sohn: Fall Creek Falls neglect and bid response need sunshine

Sohn: Fall Creek Falls neglect and bid response need sunshine

May 13th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

A boat is beached near the inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park in November near Spencer, Tenn. A plan to demolish the park's existing inn and replace it with a new facility that is privately run has garnered no bids.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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It should be coming clear to state officials that allowing state assets to atrophy with deferred maintenance needs then seeking fixes with privatization plans is not the magic fix they had expected.

Witness Fall Creek Falls State Park, the largest and most visited of Tennessee's 54 state parks.

The state failed to draw even one formal bid from private companies on a controversial contract to rebuild and run Fall Creek Falls State Park — even with the request for proposals including a provision for the state to hand over $20 million appropriated for the park in the 2016 budget.

Tennessee Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau says officials now are undecided how to proceed but remain "committed to making that a good quality park."

Martineau told Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher that the park's inn is "in shambles" and he hasn't yet talked with Gov. Bill Haslam about next steps. Fall Creek Falls encompasses 26,000 acres in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties between Dunlap and Spencer, Tenn. The inn and "conference center" is a 145-bed hotel built in 1970 and added to in 1998. Its occupancy rate dipped from 44.5 percent in 2010 to 37.2 percent in 2013, as visitors have elected to stay in nicer, competitively priced area accommodations, according to state officials.

A March 2016 report prepared for the state by a private hospitality consulting firm recommended a new "upscale" inn designed in a modern, rustic style and offering expansive views of the lake. The report said a new facility would increase both occupancy rates and average room rates — from $76 to $151 per night.

The state's request for proposals attracted five companies to tour Fall Creek Falls in January. But none of them made a bid. The problem seems quite clear: Our park assets have so declined after years of neglect under various governors that private companies see little or no opportunity for profit after they spend on necessary rebuilds and improvements. Now Martineau said TDEC hopes to get feedback from the companies that didn't bid.

This is the second meltdown on the outsourcing front for hospitality operations at state parks by Haslam's administration. In 2015, the administration issued a request for proposals to operate not just Fall Creek Falls operations, but similar functions at 10 other state parks.

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, represents the area around Fall Creek Falls, and she says administration officials once had a previous plan to renovate the inn without privatization. The state even contracted with an architect to design major improvements that would allow the inn to remain open and allow employees to keep their jobs. But that plan was shelved in favor of park outsourcing.

Now that outsourcing fight is giving way to an open records fight, which the state is foolishly fighting.

Thaddeus Watkins, Department of General Services general counsel, refused last week to make available the project's file, though Tennessee law states that proposals on personal service, professional service, consultant service contract regulations and related records, including evaluations and memorandums, "shall be available for public inspection only after the completion of evaluation of same by the state."

Watkins and other officials argue that because there were no bids, there was no evaluation completed, so the records are off limits to the public. If TDEC officials gear up for another try on the park, revealing would-be bidders' letters, emails or other documents could create problems, he said.

That's smokescreen baloney. Would-be bidders' letters, emails or documents can help shed light on how our parks are managed and what needs exist there.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, agrees, noting that the state put out its request for proposals and got none, so "the RFP is finished. If there is a problem with outsourcing Fall Creek Falls and they're getting feedback and we can learn something from that, the state should be transparent about that. I'm not sure what they're hiding here."

Nor do we. It is, after all, our park. And it is, after all, a long list of state officials who've let it reach this state of disrepair.

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