Projected costs for replacing the inn, restaurant and conference center at Tennessee’s largest and most-visited state park just went up by a whole lot. One third, to be exact.
A provision in the proposed $38.5 billion state budget for 2019-20 includes some $11 million in “cost overruns” for construction of the new facility at Fall Creek Falls State Park. The previous price tag on the 95,000-square foot facility in Van Buren County was $29.4 million. Now it’s up to an eye-popping $40.4 million.
It also means the completion date on the facility is going to be pushed back another year, to 2021.
House Finance Committee Chairman Susan Lynn, who represents Mt. Juliet, said legislative leaders were told the cost overrun was partially due to difficulty in finding subcontractors to bid on the project in a remote, sparsely populated area, given the low rate of unemployment.
Dave Roberson, a spokesman for the General Services Department, said construction costs were higher than anticipated, citing the difficulty of finding subcontractors to work on such large projects in rural regions.
Last June, when the project was presented to the State Building Commission for approval, the architectural firm Earl Swensson Associates said the project’s $29.4 million price tag was accurate.
Demolition of the existing facility and construction of the new one were considered separate projects, each with its own general contractor.
The demolition portion came within budget; the old structure was torn down last August, according to plan. Construction on the new facility was slated to start later that month. But the contractor advised the building commission of difficulty in securing subcontractors, saying the project would “likely exceed estimates by several million dollars,” Roberson said.
By November, he said, it became clear the cost overrun would be about $11 million. And the project schedule will be extended, adjusting for the time needed to secure additional funding. Roberson said work on state construction projects can’t begin “until all funds are identified,” adding, “the current budget will have to be approved before construction can begin.”
Despite all this, officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation conducted a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new inn in mid-January.
TDEC and state finance officials were reportedly aware of increasing cost estimates throughout the design process, as they were participants in discussions with the contractor. Finance Department officials requested the additional funding in the budget request.
This isn’t the first snag in the Fall Creek Falls project. The project has been blanketed in controversy right from the start.
Former governor Bill Haslam initially proposed outsourcing hospitality operations not only at Fall Creek Falls, but at other state parks with similar facilities. The notion was roundly criticized by the public as well as prospective vendors, many of whom pointed to the rundown condition of the parks’ inns.
A subsequent outsourcing scheme stirred up such widespread opposition – from state employees, legislative leaders and the State Building Commission – that it was handily beaten back.
But that didn’t stop Haslam from pushing forward with plans to replace the inns at Fall Creek Falls and Paris Landing State Park in Henry County with state-run facilities. That plan, too, met strenuous opposition and concerns from residents from both counties regarding the economic impact on local jobs and income. The plan was abandoned, but not before voters from House District 75 ousted an incumbent state representative who’d supported plans to demolish the inn at Paris Landing.