By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor
VAN BUREN COUNTY – After 45 years of serving visitors to Fall Creek Falls State Park, the inn, restaurant and conference center there is now closed; awaiting demolition to make way for a proposed new $29.4 million inn, restaurant and conference center to take its place.
In recent days, employees from other state parks and offices have picked up everything from kitchen appliances to surplus items removed from the inn.
It’s a bittersweet exchange. Out with the old and, eventually, in with the new.
“(The new inn) will serve as a catalyst for economic growth and prosperity in what is currently a distressed region of the state,” said Eric Ward, Communications Director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
With the news of the closure of the inn, and the other facilities contained within, park manager Jacob Young is quick to remind potential visitors that the park and its other campsites are still open.
“We really hope that people still continue to come because there’s so many things to do.”
– Jacob Young, Park Manager
Boat rentals, zip lining, and golf are just some of the activities offered at Fall Creek Falls State Park. Even though the inn’s closure takes 144 rooms offline, the park still has 30 cabins and 222 campsites available for guests. Nearby, but unaffiliated, horse stables and a new gun range, just down the road, offer visitors a variety of attractions. Backcountry camping is also available with a permit.
Ward added, other than the temporary closure of the inn while being rebuilt, it will be business as usual.
“Visitors will continue to be able to enjoy the various experiences at Fall Creek Falls throughout the year,” he said.
The state is footing the $30-million tab for the new facility and demolition for the empty inn is likely to take place sometime between May 1 and Memorial Day.
“It’s very bittersweet,” Greg Wilson, Van Buren County Executive, said of the closure. “The Inn’s been there since 1973. The building needs renovating, there’s no doubt about that, it does need renovating.”
An add-on, built in the early 1990s, adding 72 rooms to the overall offering will also be demolished to make way for the new facility.
Citing poor conditions and a plan to bring the facility’s safety and appearance in to the 21st century, the state has been looking to improve the facility for some time. Gov. Bill Haslam previously hoped to outsource hospitality functions there and at other similar parks as well. However, potential investors reportedly rejected the sites; some of which were in poor condition; requiring asbestos removal and other pricey work.
In recent months, some supporters in favor of preserving the old structure pushed back against the state’s plans to close and demolish the existing facility; while others felt different options, such as phased-construction or building the new facility in a separate but nearby location would’ve allowed workers to remain employed at the inn as construction on the new facility was underway.
Young says he is hopeful that some of the displaced employees are able to return to the inn once construction is complete – in approximately two years. Once the project is finished, the park will have a new facility, complete with more modern aspects.
“That’s the good side to it. It’s just hard to see right now,” Young said.
Through the facilities housed within the structure, built in the early 1970s, Van Buren County raked in roughly $200,000 in hotel/motel taxes annually.
“Van Buren County is either third or fourth in the Upper Cumberland – actually, I think we’re third other than Cumberland County and Putnam County – in hotel/motel tax collections,” Wilson said.
Those collections will take a hit during the closure, he predicts. According to Wilson, the state has verbally agreed to help supplement the county’s funding loss though those plans have yet to be revealed.
Meanwhile there are dozens of park employees affected by the inn’s closure while construction on the new facility begins. With roughly 30 full-time employees and almost as many part-time employees, affected by the inn’s closure, it’s been difficult for those impacted to find work. Some employees were able to find work filling other vacancies within the park or at other facilities or offices nearby. Some of those who were eligible to retire, did just that.
“(The state) has done a lot of work in saving a lot of the employees; most of the employees, as far as that goes,” Wilson said. “A lot of them have been placed within the park. Not all, but a lot.”
“It’s extremely sad (and) very emotional for them,” Young said. “It’s been really humbling to see some of the guys who’ve been working over there for 20-plus years continue to work… and as we remove an item (from the inn) or do something you can see it effects them – It hurts them,” Young said.
And as familiar faces move on to new jobs and new locations, Young says the level of service at the park remains high despite the recent changes.
“As a manager, I’ve been worried about it,” he said. “The guys over there are just doing an outstanding job.”
Ward says the new inn will house roughly 75 to 95 rooms including a mix of doubles, kings and suites that will be determined by a hospitality industry consultant along with the project architect, Earl Swenson and Associates.
Located between Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, the Fall Creek Falls State Park encompasses more than 26,000 acres of cascades, gorges, and waterfalls. The Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, is one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern US.
“Fall Creek Falls State Park is the crown jewel of the Tennessee State Park system,” Ward told the UCBJ. “It deserves long-term solutions, and that is exactly what we are delivering.”
“Tennessee State Parks are critical components to the state’s tourism and rural economic development portfolio,” Ward said. “A 2009 University of Tennessee study estimated the economic impact of state parks – most of which are in rural communities – at more than $725 million in direct expenditures by park visitors.”
According to that study, 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.
“We hope people continue to come in and bear with us,” Young told the UCBJ. “We’ve got construction from one end to the other – the nature center, the new park office, the new inn that’s coming in. And, in a couple of years, it’s going to be on top again and looking good. We’re going to need that customer support during this time.”