By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s effort to outsource hospitality operations at 11 state parks has failed to draw any interest from private vendors.
Haslam has long said park services like restaurants, golf courses, inns and marinas are prime examples of areas where private vendors could do a better and cheaper job than state government.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation earlier this month requested $55 million to upgrade facilities at parks before operations could be handed over to private vendors. But at least one of the three companies that had expressed interest in a bid dropped out over uncertainty about whether lawmakers would approve the money.
Brock Hill, a deputy commissioner of the Environment and Conservation Department, told reporters after budget hearings earlier this month that vendors who toured the parks were “shocked, to some degree, that they were in as bad shape as they were.”
“They hadn’t been reinvested in to the degree they should have been over the last few decades,” he said.
Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said Monday that the administration “is evaluating potential next steps at this time.”
Bryan Merritt, president of the Tennessee State Employees Association, welcomed the news that no bids had been submitted.
“We completely agree with the $55 million needed in upgrades, and support TDEC in the use of these tax dollars,” he said in a statement. “But we also feel strongly it should remain out of private hands, as to not give the appearance of corporate welfare being handed out.”
The governor told reporters earlier this month that he didn’t expect to be “flooded with offers” to run some of the more remote and dilapidated state parks.
Haslam compared the deferred maintenance on state parks to putting off home projects like replacing a roof.
“In tough financial times, people tend to put off a lot of those things until better times, until you actually have to fix that roof because it’s leaking,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is start to catch up to that curve and get ahead of it.”
The parks involved in the proposal were Cumberland Mountain, David Crockett, Fall Creek Falls, Harrison Bay, Henry Horton, Montgomery Bell, Natchez Trace, Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing, Tims Ford and Warriors’ Park.
The effort to privatizes park operations began before Haslam’s larger effort to pursue “facilities management outsourcing” at a wide range of state buildings including those at college campuses, prisons and armories. The governor has not yet said officially whether he will move forward with that effort, though he is widely expected to seek more privatization in state government.
Haslam’s parks plan has been met with skepticism from fellow Republican lawmakers representing rural areas where some of the parks are located.
At a state Senate GOP retreat in October, Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma told the governor she worried about the fate of workers if operations at state parks get farmed out to private contractors.
“Just don’t let the workers fall through the cracks,” she said.
Haslam argued that outsourcing doesn’t mean jobs will disappear.
“If we contract out the golf courses, somebody still has to mow the greens,” the governor said. “I just don’t know if that somebody should be a state employee.”
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville at that meeting urged colleagues not to be swayed by vocal opponents to the plan.
“Obviously we as senators are going to hear from that squeaky wheel, the 10 people who work at the golf course — who may be hired back,” the Senate speaker said. “That’s who we hear from. But 6.5 million in Tennessee say ‘Thank you’ for doing that.'”