Privatization conference draws protesters at Fall Creek Falls State Park

Officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation met Thursday with five companies interested in operating the park’s hospitality services while “a couple of dozen” protesters braved the cold outside to show their displeasure with the proposed privatization, reports the Times-Free Press.

The companies are scheduled to notify the state by Monday if they intend to respond to a request for proposals that was posted in December outlining the state’s willingness to spend up to $22.1 million for a new inn that would be owned by the state but run by a private company. The contract with a private company would last until December 2029.

The request states TDEC’s desire for the redeveloped lodge to be operational and open to the public by January 2020. It also calls for the new facility to be “a full-service hotel with a sophisticated, yet relaxed, contemporary design with modern upscale rustic décor.”

Requirements of the request for proposals call for the new inn to have 75-95 rooms that, according to projections in the request, could be rented for $151 per night.

Rooms in the current 145-room facility, built in 1971, rent for $76 per night, but it has deteriorated due to a lack of state funds for maintenance.

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of the environment and conservation department, said in a statement released Thursday afternoon that, “The right partner will help us more effectively steward taxpayer dollars while ensuring the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls’ hospitality operations.”

Opposition is centered on the impending loss of state jobs for inn employees, who would be displaced for two years during construction of the new facility, although the request for proposals stipulates they be guaranteed interviews with the new company. Hill has also said the state will seek placements in other state jobs for those affected.

Opponents also fear that the move to privatize hospitality services at Fall Creek Falls could be the first in a series of actions to privatize more state park facilities. They contended Thursday that the projected price of the hotel mentioned in the RFP would put a financial strain on families seeking to stay at the inn.

The request proposes that the state receive a minimum of 4.5 percent of annual gross revenue from the park’s hospitality services, which also include 20 cabins, 10 villas and an 18-hole golf course.

“It’s not a good deal for Tennessee,” Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps said, his breath visible as he held a protest sign. “This park was never intended to be a profit center. It’s intended to preserve land and provide an affordable place for Tennesseans to come and enjoy the outdoors.”

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