State Takes First Steps Towards Privatizing Parks

State Takes First Steps Towards Privatizing Parks

By Phil Williams. CREATED Feb 27, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- NewsChannel 5 has learned the Haslam administration has taken the first steps that could lead to the privatizing of almost a dozen state parks.

Now, some fear that move could end up costing hundreds of state employees their jobs.

While the state insisted that it's all very preliminary, the Tennessee State Employees Association expressed concern that it could become a sweetheart deal for big business.

"This is not a done deal," insisted Tisha Calabrese-Benton, assistant commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Tennessee boasts some 54 state parks, from the Bicentennial Mall to more tranquil hidden gems like Radnor Lake.

But under the plan being considered by the Haslam administration, operation of some of the state's golf courses, inns and campgrounds, even marinas, could be turned over to a big corporation to operate.

State officials recently asked the industry for ideas about how it might save money in some of the larger state parks.

On the list in Middle Tennessee: Montgomery Bell, David Crockett, Henry Horton, Tims Ford, Fall Creek Falls and Cumberland Mountain state parks. Also on the list: Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing, Natchez Trace, Harrison Bay and Warriors Path state parks.

Altogether, 11 state parks are included in the recent "request for information."

"Doing research to find out whether there are things that we can do to improve the way we operate makes sense, and that's what this is," Calabrese-Benton said. "And we don't know what the outcome of that research is going to be. This is research."

This effort follows a decision last year by the Haslam administration to outsource the management of state buildings to a big corporation. For career state employees, it can sometimes feel like they are under attack.

"Certainly, the operation of these parks ain't broke," said Bob O'Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association.

O'Connell noted that the state's own figures show state parks are already operating in the black, with some 1,500 full-and part-time state employees on the parks payroll.

He fears that jobs will be lost if a big corporation is allowed to turn those parks into a profit center.

"If someone out in private enterprise has a better and more efficient idea, let's not bring them in and let them take over and let them make a profit on this better idea. Let's use their idea," O'Connell said.

Calabrese-Benton said, "We are looking at every option and this is one of those options."

State officials insisted that the idea of outsourcing park operations isn't a radical one. After all, the national park system has done the exact same thing.

But state employees said that doesn't have to be the way Tennessee treats two of its most valuable resources -- its people and its parks.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," O'Connell added.

The state pointed out that a few state park restaurants and marinas have already been outsourced. Here is the list:

Restaurants: Cove Lake, Harrison Bay, and Chickasaw
Gift Shop and Camp Store:  Fall Creek Falls
Marinas:  Edgar Evins, Tim's Ford
Equestrian stables: Warriors Path, Fall Creek Falls, Cedars, Natchez Trace

Still, they said they are also asking these companies how they treat their employees -- just in case they decide to expand those privatization efforts even more.

While the Haslam administration insisted this is just a "request for information," all of the administration's other outsourcing efforts began just like that.

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Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.