TDEC proposes giving private contractors $55M to fix state parks

At a budget hearing Thursday, state Department of Environment and Conservation officials proposed to give private contractors $55 million they can use to make needed improvements before taking over management of “hospitality” functions at 11 of the largest Tennessee state parks.

The money would go toward what the officials say is a $120 million backlog of deferred maintenance needed at parks, according to the News Sentinel.

The agency is also asking for another $15 million toward the remaining $65 million in deferred maintenance at the 43 other state parks and the parts of the 11 parks not included in the outsourcing plan.

That plan includes what the department calls the hospitality functions — inns, conference centers, cabins, restaurants, golf courses, marinas and gift shops — at Cumberland Mountain, David Crockett, Fall Creek Falls, Harrison Bay, Henry Horton, Montgomery Bell, Natchez Trace, Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing, Tims Ford and Warrior’s Path state parks.

The $55 million is considered crucial enough to any outsourcing deal for the parks that procurement documents on the state’s website say the plan would likely be scrapped if the Legislature doesn’t approve the allocation. In the question-and-answer phase of the bid process, at least one potential contractor indicated it might be reluctant to bid without the certainty that the taxpayer funding will be approved.

Environment and Conservation Commissioner Robert Martineau and Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill said Thursday they won’t know how many vendors will file bids until after the Dec. 11 deadline. When the state first issued requests for bids, it proposed a single contract for hospitality functions at all 11 parks, but revised it later so that a contractor must agree to take on those functions at least three parks.

After next week’s bid opening, the department’s timeline calls for months of review and possible negotiations with contractors before contracts are to be signed next July 15.

…The proposed contract gives the contractor authority to set rates at the inns, marinas, golf courses and other facilities they would manage, up to “market rates in the area,” and must only give the department notice of the rates.

“They’re going to want to get a payback on their investment,” Hill told reporters after the hearing. “The other side to (the state’s $55 million grant) is there’s $19 million in fixtures, furniture and equipment that we’re asking the private-sector partner to invest. If we invested $55 million, we’re looking for them to invest $19 million and the $19 million is savings to the taxpaying public of Tennessee.”