Fall Creek Falls Park privitization to proceed with revised oversight

The State Building Commission will now have firmer control over building-related aspects of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans for outsourcing Fall Creek Falls State Park’s operations under amended rules for bidders approved on Thursday, reports the Times-Free Press.

But Treasurer David Lillard, a commission member, made it clear during the commission’s executive subcommittee meeting that the panel’s oversight jurisdiction does not extend to the request for proposals’ other major area: The outsourcing of hospitality functions at the popular Upper Cumberland Plateau park in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

Statutorily, those are “not within the Building Commission’s purview,” Lillard said, noting the excluded list includes current workers’ continued employment, pay and benefits in operational areas ranging from the park inn, restaurant and convention center to the golf course and gift shop.

But the SBC will retain strict oversight within provisions of the request for proposals over the park’s chosen vendor, who will be called upon to spend $22 million in taxpayer money to tear down the existing inn and rebuild it.

Members unanimously approved the tighter oversight in efforts to resolve a revolt by professional Tennessee-based architects and engineers.

…Critics see the revised request for proposals as the template for renewed administration efforts. Haslam’s proposed budget calls for new capital expenditures at several other parks.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, an outsourcing critic, said the amended request for proposals provides “more legislative oversight” over the park’s demolition and construction.

Note: The TDEC press release is below.

News release from Department of Environment and Conservation

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee State Building Commission today approved an amended request for proposals (RFP) that seeks a concessionaire agreement to build a new inn and operate certain hospitality operations at Fall Creek Falls State Park. The amended RFP clarifies the role of the State Building Commission’s oversight of the process.

“We have a responsibility to protect taxpayer investments in our state parks and provide our visitors with a positive experience,” Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau said. “Decades of insufficient maintenance funding has resulted in dilapidated facilities and disappointed customers. Today’s decision moves us one step closer to our goal of ending that ‘run-to-fail’ trend while providing clarity on the State Building Commission role in the process.”

The RFP seeks a partner to rebuild and operate the inn, conference center and restaurant, as well as operate the cabins and golf course. The cabins and golf course will remain open during construction. The State will continue to own all aspects of the park visitors’ center, campgrounds, trails, group camps, natural areas, as well as the newly rebuilt inn, conference center and restaurant, cabins and golf course.

Fall Creek Falls State Park is an essential economic contributor to Van Buren, Bledsoe and surrounding rural counties, and Tennessee State Parks are a key component of Tennessee’s overall tourism portfolio. The rebuild of the inn and conference center is part of a comprehensive effort to upgrade the park.

“With the support of the Governor and the General Assembly, we have already been able to invest in renovations to the Fall Creek Falls visitors’ center, the nature center, the fisherman cabins, landside cabins and the golf course,” TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill said. “Our customers demand a better experience and taxpayers demand better stewardship of their investments. This proposal is our commitment to deliver.”

A 2009 University of Tennessee study estimated the economic impact of state parks at more than $725 million in direct expenditures by park visitors. The study also found that every dollar spent generates an additional $1.11 of economic activity and that every general fund dollar spent on state parks created $17 of direct expenditures and more than $37 of combined direct, indirect and induced expenditures.

“Once guests visit Tennessee, arguably the most important ingredient in inspiring them to return is the quality of the experience they have when they are here,” Tennessee Department of Tourism Commissioner Kevin Triplett said. “That experience declines as the property in which they are staying or the restaurant where they eat declines.”

TDEC did an extensive analysis with input from industry consultants on all possible options for the inn, including renovation and rebuilding in a different location. TDEC concluded that renovation would cost nearly as much money as it would to do a complete rebuild and that the cost of building a new facility at a different location within the park would be cost-prohibitive.

“I spent more than 25 years in NASCAR racing and it is amazing what a hammer, a saw and some duct tape can do,” Triplett added. “But even that only works for so long.”

Some inn employees will be displaced during the inn rebuild. Cabin and golf course employees will remain employed with the state during the time of the rebuild. Following the inn rebuild, the inn employees displaced would have a guaranteed interview if they elect to apply. Eligible golf course and cabin employees would submit intent to transition, which would guarantee their continued employment. The proposed agreement would not affect any ranger positions, ranger support positions, maintenance positions and other positions not directly tied to hospitality operations.

TDEC is committed to working with any employees affected to help them find other employment opportunities inside TDEC or state government. The RFP includes provisions varying by employee class that include the potential for maintained employment and guaranteed interviews upon the reopening of the inn. Severance packages, including free college tuition benefits, could also be provided to certain employees under state policy.

 “We have not made this decision lightly but we know it is the right thing to do,” Hill said. “The new inn will increase occupancy rates and is estimated to provide a 90 percent increase in sales and hotel/motel tax revenues by its third year in operation, which would naturally mean more jobs and a healthier long-term employment outlook for the community.”

Construction of the new inn is also anticipated to bring approximately 100 jobs.

The amended RFP is posted at https://www.tn.gov/generalservices/article/request-for-proposals.

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