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VOL. 132 | NO. 44 | Thursday, March 2, 2017

Fall Creek Falls Park Contract Postponed Indefinitely

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – The state is putting an indefinite hold on a proposed contract for a private company to redevelop and operate Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The Department of General Services is postponing the request for proposals process from vendors for a contract to oversee construction of a new inn at the park and to run its hospitality services after the $22 million project is complete.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks, says the deadline is being postponed to make revisions to the request for proposals through a “future amendment,” which will be updated.

But state employees and lawmakers battling the outsourcing plan are calling this a win.

“Overall we see this as a victory for the people of Tennessee, not just state workers, because we’re taking a pause before we move forward so rapidly with privatization,” said Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association.

Stamps contends the state didn’t meet the statutory requirements for the request for proposals, and he adds, “But we also believe the Legislature is very hesitant to move forward on this project.”

Gov. Bill Haslam can move forward with outsourcing on his own, but the budget plan for fiscal 2017-18 contains state parks items, including tearing down the inn Henry Horton State Park, without funds to rebuild it.

Even if the privatization revives, Stamps points out that Haslam will be leaving office in less than two years, taking his commitment to privatization with him.

State employees support revitalization of state parks facilities such as the inns, but they want to show how well they can run them when they are funded properly.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” said state Sen. Lee Harris, a Memphis Democrat, who has fought the proposal. “But, this looks like a total and unequivocal victory for state employees and Tennesseans who want to keep our cherished public assets from landing in the laps of profit-driven companies.”

The state’s decision to postpone the outsourcing plan for Fall Creek Falls, believed to be the first in Gov. Bill Haslam’s long-range plans, has “positive benefits,” Harris said.

“It means we will not have to raise rates significantly at Tennessee parks to feed the insatiable profit demands of a private business,” Harris said. “It means we won’t have to expose state employees to possible job loss and wage reductions. Most importantly, it means that we’re back to setting an agenda that aligns with the expectations of real Tennesseans, instead of relying on consultants to tell us what we should be doing.”

State officials have said no state workers would lose jobs, pay or benefits, but they acknowledge they would come under the wage and benefits scales of a private contractor.

“This is a significant victory for rural workers and local communities around our state parks,” said state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat.

Clemmons and Harris held town hall meetings at University of Tennessee campuses and at Fall Creek Falls and Montgomery Bell state parks to gather input from state employees on the possible effects of outsourcing facilities management at those properties.

“To a person, every one of these people was concerned about their well-being, their family’s well-being and their local community’s well-being,” Clemmons said, adding that attendance at those meetings was “standing room only.”

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is planning to demolish the inn at Fall Creek Falls this year for construction of a new facility.

But a vendor was to oversee design and bidding for the contract, with some oversight by the State Building Commission in a process the state normally oversees from start to finish.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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