Fall Creek Falls outsourcing largely bypasses State Building Commission oversight

Fall Creek Falls outsourcing largely bypasses State Building Commission oversight

February 26th, 2017 by Andy Sher in Politics State

An older guest cabin is seen ahead of recently renovated guest cabins at Fall Creek Falls State Park on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Spencer, Tenn. A plan to demolish the park's existing inn and replace it with a new facility that is privately run has apparently been renewed, and the process would take more than 2 years.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam's administration is stirring up another political hornet's nest with its ongoing privatization plans for Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Tennessee architects and engineers have jumped into the political battle between the administration on one side and, on the other, state employees and Van Buren County who oppose outsourcing hospitality services at the remote Cumberland Plateau park considered the "jewel" of Tennessee's park system.

The architects and engineers say the administration's request for proposals (RFP) to privatize hospitality services also has provisions that affect them and would largely bypass the State Building Commission, which oversees state building and renovation projects.

The administration has set aside $22 million to tear down the park's inn and build a new one.

The proposal would allow vendors to select their own architects, engineers and construction teams. But William Blankenship, a Knoxville architect and president of the American Institute of Architects- Tennessee, said the RFP "circumvents" the State Building Commission.

When "the state of Tennessee hires me as the designer and I sign a contract with the state, I serve the state and I serve the state's best interest," Blankenship said

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"When somebody's working for a concessionaire out of New York City, they're going to sign a contract with that concessionaire. Do you really think he's going to work in the state's best interest? He's going to move across the table to the concessionaire. And they're going to work together either for or against the state of Tennessee."

State Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau said the State Building Commission still will have a role in approving the process.

"Somebody's going to design the building. Everybody's going to have to be licensed and to be an architect in Tennessee just like any other project the state has or private sector has."

But Blankenship and AIA-Tennessee's chief lobbyist, Bill Nolan, said the RFP doesn't require the vendor use a Tennessee business. The concessionaire, not the building commission, will determine the design and construction team. And the vendor won't be required to follow state procurement policies enforced by the commission in those areas, they argue.

Blankenship and Nolan say State Building Commission oversight of building has resulted in decades of well-designed and -constructed buildings that are safe for 40 to 50 years in a process that has been scandal-free.

That goes away, they say, with State Building Commission approval in a one-off type action with no oversight.

The Building Commission's members are Haslam; Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is the Senate speaker; House Speaker Beth Harwell; State Comptroller Justin Wilson; Secretary of State Tre Hargett, and state Treasurer David Lillard. The latter three are elected by the GOP-run General Assembly.

Haslam rarely attends meetings and his finance commissioner, Larry Martin, sits in for him. Other members can easily be portrayed as obstructionists if they balk, Nolan said.

The vertical construction process "concerns me," said Nolan, a former state representative. "They have one company that does it. They're bidding the management contracts, they're bidding the design contracts, they're bidding the construction projects and it's easy to low-bid some and high-bid the other."

Potential vendors will base their overall bids on individual components of the operations of the park's inn, restaurant, golf course and cabins along with building the new inn, Nolan said. Each component's value will depend on how fierce the competition on each component is and they'll bid low on those, he said.

"It skews the whole process," said Nolan.

There's another concern. Current law requires architects and engineers to be state-based, with professionals in East, Middle and West Tennessee handling projects in their grand divisions. The RFP will allow the vendors to select anyone in the country, architects and engineers fear.

Also, the RFP mentions all goods and services would be obtained through competitive means, indicating cost or fee bidding. That's counter to the current state selection process, where proponents argue the state hires the most qualified designers to protect its investment of money into projects.

Engineers are concerned as well, but not quite as outspoken as architects.

Blankenship and Nolan said that with Haslam, a privatization advocate, expected to push outsourcing at other state parks, there needs to be appropriate State Building Commission oversight of the process.

Nolan said the proposed change grants the executive branch tremendous power over the process it doesn't have now.

He recalled a dark period of Tennessee history when members of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton's administration went to jail for selling pardons and the governor himself was convicted of selling liquor licenses, although the charges were ultimately overturned.

"Can you imagine if the Blanton administration had been in charge?" asked Nolan. "In the days of Ray and Gene Blanton who were in the construction industry, without the Building Commission in charge? It would have been a disaster."

The issue has drawn the attention of Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, an outsourcing critic whose district includes Fall Creek Falls.

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Both closely quizzed Lillard about the issue last week in committee.

"It appears to be a process that diminishes the role of the State Building Commission at the expense of giving more power to the executive branch, or at least more authority for building to the executive branch," Bell told Lillard.

Lillard said he doesn't know "that all the details of that are fully fleshed out at this point, about what the role of the Building Commission will be" if a contract is let.

Bell said later he doesn't feel very reassured about the process at this point.

Bowling said lawmakers approved millions to upgrade Fall Creek Falls and other parks, "and instead there appears this vertical integration to tear down an existing park" inn.

The projected two-year down time to tear down and build a new inn at Fall Creek Falls has both Van Buren and Tennessee State Employees Association officials in a tizzy over the impact to workers. County officials are also worried about the blow to sales tax revenues in the tiny rural county where the park is the No. 1 employer.

"The people in my county, their lives have been in turmoil, their government, because it's a major funding stream in this county," Bowling said. "The jobs are at risk. It's just a very disconcerting process."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.