Fall Creek Falls project leaves destructive trail

Friday, May 11, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 19

The Fall Creek Falls Inn and Conference Center will soon be in ruins like the livelihoods of the state employees who worked there.

Fewer than half the state employees who worked at the inn found new state jobs after it closed in early April. Some are working for nearly half the pay, and some had to move away from Van Buren County or drive long distances to keep a job with the state.

Republican state Rep. Paul Sherrell of Sparta is finding his family on the wrong side of the equation, too. His wife’s sister, Julie Harrell, a mother of one who worked in the kitchen at Fall Creek Falls, can’t find a state job after working there for a number of years.

Sherrell, nearing the end of his first term, says he spoke about the situation with Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of parks in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Hill told him he would try to find a place for her to work, but it hasn’t happened, Sherrell adds.

“I would have liked to have seen them build an inn somewhere else on the property, kept that one open until they got the other one built, then tear that one down. But they had it in their mind to tear it down. So, what else can you do?” Sherrell asks.

He also wishes the state had put more thought into the future of employees, in addition to the revenue the state of Tennessee will lose while the inn is closed.

But the state plowed ahead with demolition and replacement despite an outcry from area residents and workers.

Construction on the new inn, a $30 million project, is scheduled to start either this fall or winter 2019 with completion slated for summer 2020. Bell Construction is doing the work, and Earl Swensson & Associates is handling design and development.

The state has said it is investing $43 million in Fall Creek Falls facilities, including work on cabins, the swimming pool, visitor center, village green, golf course and sewer lines. Overnight use of cabins, campsites and backcountry camping is still available, the state points out.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who a couple of years ago floated the idea of selling the parks to private companies, has contended all along this is the right move for Fall Creek Falls and Van Buren County, even in regard to employees.

“Every impacted employee has been offered job placement assistance within another state park or division at TDEC, or elsewhere within state government, and many have accepted placements,” says TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski.

There’s a big difference, though, between receiving an offer and a paycheck with benefits.

Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, says the latest report shows 20 of the Fall Creek Falls employees found other state jobs, 23 were separated or terminated, meaning they took the severance, and four retired. He also adds more people were affected because the park had numerous 10-month employees.

Further describing the state of affairs, one person had to move to Chattanooga for a state job, another who’d been a hospitality manager became a conservation worker and took a 43 percent pay cut and yet another person who worked in food service is driving 50 miles each way to keep a state job, Stamps says.

“We’re glad they placed 20 people, but I never understood why they were so passionate about closing those inns,” Stamps adds.

He uses the plural form of the word because the state is getting ready to do the same thing at Paris Landing State Park, where it ran into a firestorm of opposition from employees and residents during a recent public hearing there, the Paris Post-Intelligencer reports.

The state is planning a $26 million project to replace the old inn with a new building with half the rooms, despite the wishes of people who would rather see a renovation that would cost roughly half the price and enable the inn to remain open.

But it seems to be getting ahead of itself to a degree.

Tennessee held public hearings at 20 state parks April 19 and 24 to discuss future projects. But it didn’t complete a master plan, at least for Fall Creek Falls, until a couple of weeks ago, a requirement before the department can undertake a project costing more than $100,000.

Yet the inn, which is the most profitable in Tennessee’s parks system, is about to be “rubble,” Stamps explains. He contends the Department of Environment and Conservation was out of compliance with that rule and had not answered an attorney general’s opinion on the matter.

Meanwhile, the state has no idea how much revenue it might lose from these inn closings while construction takes place, Stamps says, mainly because it doesn’t know how long it will take to open new facilities.

Sharp criticism

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat who has taken on state parks as one of his main issues, says he believes what the Haslam Administration is saying about employee assistance is “far from the truth.”

“Nothing about this entire project or process has made sense from start to finish. The entire thing was planned out behind closed doors, and then they chose the most expensive plan that did the most harm to the most people and the local economy,” Clemmons says.

Although Deputy Commissioner Hill claims Paris Landing employees could regain jobs once a new inn opens there, Clemmons adds nothing is concrete for any of the workers at Fall Creek Falls.

He points out people can’t “sit around and twiddle their thumbs without a paycheck until the new inn opens with no guarantee.”

The deal for full-time workers included lump-sum severance packages of $3,200, tuition assistance for two years at any state college or technical school, a shot at unemployment and a spot on the state’s Reduction in Force list for one year.

Part-timers will receive a one-time $1,000 payment, tuition assistance and a chance for state unemployment.

“The victory we do have is it won’t be privatized,” Stamps says, adding Gov. Haslam seems to have moved on from any more outsourcing plans.

Clemmons isn’t so certain.

“I think this is all trying to set up a scenario for outsourcing … to replace hardworking state employees, and in doing so they’re doing it in a process that’s costing the state more money and harming the local economy and the state workers,” Clemmons adds.

He contends the state needs to do the right thing for state employees and state lands, investing in deferred maintenance and more.

“We need to value these natural treasures for what they are and pay them more than lip service,” Clemmons continues.

The Department of Environment and Conservation points out the Haslam Administration has put more than $170 million in capital investments into state parks. The governor’s initial plan to turn them over to the private sector hit a wall when nobody bit, mainly because the parks facilities were in such poor shape.

Since then, he’s been hell-bent on turning them into four-star hotels, much to the chagrin of state employees.

The analysis

Gov. Haslam will be gone in about eight months, and the outlook for state parks could take a completely different turn.

But no matter who takes office in 2019, state parks need more emphasis than they’ve received over the last two decades. And that doesn’t mean throwing money at them.

As Fall Creek Falls and Paris Landing people said, the state could spend half as much on renovation and do just as well.

Think about it: When people go to state parks to enjoy nature, do they really care whether their room looks like the Hilton? They’re going there to play golf, swim, hike, ride bicycles or attend conferences. What they mainly want is working showers, comfortable beds and good food.

To his credit, Gov. Haslam has the state in good financial shape, boasting the lowest unemployment since people started compiling these numbers. But those shiny figures aren’t very comforting to state parks employees, none of whom are getting rich working for the state.

In fact, some of Fall Creek Falls people had earned promotions and were on probation when the buyouts started, putting them on even shakier ground for all their efforts.

When you’ve been working at a place for 25 to 30 years, and the state of Tennessee suddenly decides you’re expendable, there really is no consolation prize. You just have to suck it up and hope the next governor will take on a new outlook.

But when just about everyone running for the governor’s office is a multi-millionaire, you have to wonder if they’ll really care about the rubble or the rabble.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.