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Front Page - Friday, December 22, 2017

Fall Creek Falls: Sound plan or political payback

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Now go find a job. That’s the message the state of Tennessee is sending nearly 60 employees at Fall Creek Falls State Park at this joyous holiday season.

Rather than outsource jobs and the renovation of park’s inn, a proposal vehemently opposed by state workers and numerous legislators, the Department of Environment and Conservation is opting to take a different route, one that means closing the old inn for 18 to 24 months in April 2018 and building a new one.

The caveat, however, is they’ll be releasing 31 full-time and 27 part-time employees.

Sure, they’ll be getting hefty severance packages, including a lump sum of $3,200 for full-timers, college 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, college tuition assistance and a chance for state unemployment.

“Our human resources staff will be working closely to identify other positions at TDEC, at other state agencies and other employers in the area that might be available to those impacted employees,” TDEC spokesman Eric Ward says. No employees have been released yet, he points out, since the inn won’t be closed and torn down until next spring.

State Sen. Janice Bowling says she was promised the Fall Creek Falls employees in Van Buren County were going to be “taken care of” and offered other positions in the parks system there while the inn was undergoing work.

Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican critic of the state’s previous parks outsourcing plans, points out rural and remote Van Buren County is an economically distressed area already and would be devastated by the loss of jobs, even for a small number of workers. “Those are very good jobs in Van Buren County,” she notes.

During presentations on outsourcing by the Department of General Services early this year, officials promised that no state employee would lose their job as a result of privatization.

The question is whether this is a form of reneging or a reshuffling of the deck.

Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps is miffed by the state’s decision.

“We do not understand why the administration does not explore better locations for the new inn at Fall Creek Falls,” Stamps says. “We are concerned for the employees who work at the inn, their families and that entire rural community.

“The administration has an obligation to that community and all state taxpayers to consider other locations for the inn which make more business sense for all affected parties, especially when there are options that don’t give up revenue for two to three years when clearly other alternatives are available.”

After privatization was dropped, Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson points out, state officials said they were going to look at renovating the inn and probably wait until spring 2019. Things started changing during the last few weeks, though, culminating in an early December move to tear down, rebuild and let go of workers in late May 2018.

The Van Buren County Commission held a standing room-only public hearing on the matter recently but has little, if any, recourse.

“Nothing’s being done for the employees, except here’s a minute severance package and good luck,” Wilson adds.

He even says retribution against employees who opposed the outsourcing plan could be a factor, too.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” he says, adding he believes privatization will emerge again in the operation of a new inn or hotel.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons calls the situation a “lose-lose” for Fall Creek Falls and Tennessee residents and makes no bones about deception on the part of the state.

“It’s devastating to that community and the people who work in and around Fall Creek Falls,” Clemmons says. “Representations were made as to the protection of jobs down there that have been proven to be false. And those representations were made by this governor’s administration, as well as the people of TDEC, specifically Brock Hill (deputy commissioner).

“They’ve now made this ridiculous decision to tear down the inn rather than renovate it. It’s an architecturally significant structure that admittedly needs renovation, but there is no excuse for deciding to tear down this facility.”

Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat who has been spearheading the effort against outsourcing and park preservation for two years, points out state taxpayers will pay twice as much for a new inn with half the rooms of the existing one while the cost for renting a room will roughly double when the new inn opens.

The state’s view

The Department of Environment and Conservation, which handles the state’s parks systems, calls the inn project a “critical long-term investment” for Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, a “catalyst for economic growth and prosperity” in the struggling area, Ward states via email.

In addition, building a new inn is the next part of the Haslam administration’s plan to reinvest $43 million in Fall Creek Falls facilities, including work done on cabins, the swimming pool, visitor center, village green, nature center, golf course and sewer, Ward says.

“Statewide, this administration has appropriated more than $170 million in capital investment for Tennessee state parks that improve our quality of life and help drive rural economic development,” he adds.

He notes the inn closing date of April 2, 2018 was set recently by the Department of General Services, which is managing the project.

The Department of General Services is also the state agency responsible for trying to push Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing plan, which was opposed by an overwhelming number of legislators this year.

Asked if he’s concerned about people losing jobs and the possibility that the state reneged on promises, Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals says, “The governor has said we have to look at what is best for Fall Creek Falls State Park, Van Buren County and the state in the long term, and he believes the plan TDEC has created is the right one.

“Under that plan, TDEC will work closely to identify other positions within the department, at other state agencies and with other employers in the area that might be available to impacted employees.”

Clemmons, however, calls the plan “irresponsible” and another “poor decision” by the administration that will “inflict severe detrimental impact” on Fall Creek Falls workers and the surrounding community.

Clemmons also says transparency and truthfulness were lacking in the decision.

“And I’m seriously disappointed in the state officials, both in the administration and elected, who represent that area, who have refused to stand up for the people they represent and the park that is the jewel of our state parks system,” he adds.

What can be done?

Short of renovating the old inn, Van Buren Mayor Wilson says he believes the best plan would be to build a new inn across a lake from the existing one where utilities are available along with better access to the general store, golf course and other attractions.

Then, the old inn could be torn down and more cabins, which often have a year-long waiting period or more, could be constructed, he says.

“It makes no economic sense,” Wilson explains of the recently announced plan. “They could renovate for about $18 million, but they’re going to tear down and rebuild for about $30 million.”

The decision not only disrupts continuity for employees but for the economy too, he points out.

Sen. Bowling notes the state is going to provide funding to replace revenue Van Buren County would have made otherwise.

But she is far from happy with the decisions affecting employees, calling the recent decision to release workers “egregious.”

“I was told up front that wouldn’t happen. And now it’s happening,” Bowling says. She also calls the offer of education perks a “hollow” and “empty” promise, since the closest education facilities are in Warren County.

Besides, most state employees likely would be eligible for Tennessee Promise or Tennessee Reconnect scholarships anyway, making the severance package a lot less glitzy.

Wilson, meanwhile, encourages people who don’t want their state parks sold off to private enterprise to call and write their state leaders. And Bowling is holding out scant hope the state will take another direction.

“I hope they’re able to resolve something. It’s a terrible thing to let folks know Dec. 5, just before Christmas” their jobs will disappear, she acknowledges.

Certainly, a new inn will be nice. But when your job is fading fast and your prospects are limited, this holiday news lands like a lump of coal.

Then again, since when did Gov. Haslam drive a sleigh?

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.