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Windows of Recreation Opportunities

Officials hope new state natural area will attract more tourist dollars to region

The Window Cliffs Natural Area in Putnam County is now open for the business of public recreation.

State park officials, local politicians, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts gathered for a commencement celebration and an inaugural round of guided hikes at the 275-acre scenic refuge on April 7.

The opening of the area was also scheduled to highlight and coincided with this year’s State Natural Areas Spring Celebration Week, which is used to raise public awareness about Tennessee’s 85 state-owned natural areas.

The state’s Natural Areas Program “seeks to include adequate representation of all natural communities that make up Tennessee’s natural landscape, and provide long-term protection for Tennessee’s rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal life,” according to the Department of Environment and Conservation.

“I can really think of no way to better honor this week than the opening of Window Cliffs State Natural Area,” Roger McCoy, director of TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas, told the crowd of 100 or so people gathered for the kickoff event. “This is a big deal.”

The area’s plant diversity and craggy beauty are sure to entice visitors to Window Cliffs, said McCoy. “We’ve got mature forests, the free-flowing Cane Creek, and an amazing geologic formation that really is like no other in the state.”

The Window Cliffs trailhead is located about seven miles south of Exit 280 on I-40, at 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd in Baxter. It’s also just a couple miles from Burgess Falls State Park. The Window Cliffs trail includes a total of 20 bridgeless stream crossings and some pretty steep climbs, so don’t expect to have dry feet or fresh legs by the end of the day.

Bill Summers, head ranger at Burgess Falls State Park and Window Cliffs State natural Area

“Burgess Falls offers a relative short, scenic hike, and Window Cliffs is a little bit more of a challenging hike, which will be more rewarding to some visitors,” said Bill Summers, the chief state park ranger in charge of both areas. “I truly believe that both will compliment each other in what they offer to the public, and what they protect for future generations.”

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Bureau of Parks, said Gov. Bill Haslam has sought to place a “special focus on rural economic development,” and the opening of Window Cliffs is aligned with that priority.

Like with the opening of Cummins Falls State Park north of Exit 280, the Haslam administration’s parks and recreation planners believe taking a “businesslike approach” to designating and promoting exciting new outdoor-activity destinations will enhance local economies.

“A lot of communities, particularly here in the Upper Cumberland, are still struggling in some ways,” said Hill. “What Tennessee state parks can bring to that is what is called ‘place-based economic development.’ When we have beautiful landscapes like we do here in the Upper Cumberland, we have been able to identify places that will add a lot in terms of value to local economic development with tourism and job growth, as well as an opportunity for healthy lifestyles.”

This is the 46th year of Tennessee’s Natural Areas Program,” and the 80th year of the state park system.

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Plan for Privatizing Fall Creek Falls Hotel Held Up

TDEC adding ‘amendment’ to ongoing RFP; Attorney general says process legal

Officials in the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam have postponed the deadline for private companies to submit proposals for operating a new $22 million hotel at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The state Department of Environment and Conservation, which supervises state parks and natural areas in Tennessee, is planning to amend the “Request for Proposals” process that it launched last year, according to Eric Ward, a spokesman for the agency.

Prior to the delay announcement, March 2 was the scheduled deadline for companies to submit first-phase operational proposals for running the future restaurant and lodging facility, which would remain owned by the state.

The construction funding for the project has already been approved by the Tennessee General Assembly. The new facility is expected to replace the existing inn, built in the early 1970s, on the banks of scenic Fall Creek Lake.

Ward said “content revisions to the RFP” are currently in the works by TDEC planners.

In an emailed response to inquiries by Center Hill Sun, Ward said that because the companies bidding are engaged in a “competitive procurement process,” the specific nature of the changes will remain under wraps until their formal public release.

“The amended language will be available soon,” Ward wrote on Thursday.

Originally, the state was scheduled to finalize an agreement by July 1. The “concessionaire” firm that wins the contract would also take over management of the state park golf course in addition to the new inn facilities, expected to be completed in 2020.

A statement issued in January from TDEC asserted that the ultimate goal of the hospitality-service privatization initiative is to “more effectively steward taxpayer dollars by better protecting the park’s assets.”

The department also predicts an economic bounce to surrounding communities as a result.

The 26,000-acre park straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe Counties, both of which are considered “economically distressed” by the state and federal government. The same is true of White County to the north and parts of Warren County to the west.

TDEC officials say the existing hotel tends to run occupancy rates below 40 percent. The average hotel occupancy-rate nationally was 65.5 percent in 2016, according to industry estimates used by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. In the Southeastern United States, the average was 61.4 percent and in Tennessee it was 64.5 percent.

“Increased occupancy and visitation with a new Inn will provide increased tax revenues for the local government and reliable employment for local citizens once the rebuild is complete,” according to the TDEC statement from earlier this year.

Unhappy Union Employees

The plan isn’t without its critics. Government employees at the hotel and restaurant worry they won’t enjoy the same benefits and job protections under a company intent on turning a profit.

Randy Stamps, executive director of of the Tennessee State Employees Association, would rather see the existing inn renovated and repaired and remain operated by public-payroll workers.

“Or, if poor structural conditions require we demolish and rebuild the inn, we should run it with state employees for a few years to raise occupancy rates and then reassess the value of a new inn running at its peak,” Stamps wrote in a January op-ed for The Tennessean.

An effort in 2015 by the Haslam administration to entice an outside company to run the inn failed to draw any interest because of the facility’s poor condition.

One bureaucratic peculiarity involving the project didn’t go unnoticed by opponents of a private company running the hotel.

Up until last week, the Haslam administration was seeking to approve plans for designing and constructing the new hotel itself, outside the customary review-and-oversight processes for publicly owned structures. Typically, that is supervised by the State Building Commission.

However, the administration has now apparently agreed to seek consent of some form for the new hotel design from the commission.

The Building Commission is made up of high-ranking officials from various arms of state government — including the speaker of the House, the secretary of state, the comptroller, the treasurer, the Department of Finance commissioner and the governor himself.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who also serves on the Building Commission in his capacity as lieutenant governor, told reporters at the Capitol last week the RFP holdup is “somewhere between a bump in the road and a roadblock.”

“It’s not a roadblock, but it’s not as insignificant as a bump in the road,” according to McNally.

The Tennessee attorney general’s office has released an opinion declaring that, provided the State Building Commission agrees to the terms, the state may “enter into agreements concerning state-owned or state-controlled lands and facilities, such as the proposed RFP and Concession Contract for the operation of Fall Creek Falls State Park.”

(Editor’s Note: This story was updated March 7.)

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New State Natural Area Opening in April

Window Cliffs area offers yet another scenic attraction to region

Outdoor enthusiasts will soon have another remarkable Upper Cumberland landform to behold and appreciate.

Located in Putnam County — southwest of Cookeville and a bit north-northwest of Burgess Falls — the newly designated Window Cliffs State Natural Area is scheduled to open to the public Friday, April 7.

The trailhead address is 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd., Baxter.

The 275-acre haven of Highland Rim splendor promises yet another splendid hiking getaway for a region already brimming with robust outdoor recreation opportunities.

“It is a spectacular area in terms of scenery,” said state naturalist Randy Hedgepath, who leads tours and directs nature-education programs on public lands around Tennessee.

“You have a bluff that separates the upstream and downstream parts of the creek there,” Hedgepath said. “The bluff has eroded from both sides causing an opening to develop — hence the name ‘Window Cliffs.’ It is also a beautiful area of native forests. The stream that runs through the area and the rock formations are really pretty.”

The eight-mile trail at Window Cliffs — which crosses Cane Creek a number of times within the area’s boundaries — will supply visitors with ample opportunity for birdwatching, flower-gazing, woods wandering, animal observing and vista viewing.

The gemstone of the natural area of course is the age-hewn limestone pinnacle hemmed in by an oxbow bend along Cane Creek, which empties into Center Hill Lake a couple miles downstream.

“At the narrowest point, the cliff is only about 50 yards wide at the base with the clifftops just a few feet wide,” according to a survey-description by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks and natural areas. “However, the stream distance separating the two cliff-faces is about 0.8 mile. The narrow cliffs have resulted from erosion and natural bridges or ‘windows’ appear within them.”

The area will compliment Burgess Falls in superb fashion, said state park manager Bill Summers. Like Burgess Falls, Window Cliffs will be a day-use area only.

Whereas the foot trail above Burgess Falls is relatively easy and short, the trek from trailhead to the Window Cliffs is a “fairly strenuous” four miles each way, said Summers.

“You start the hike on the Highland Rim, then descend into the Central Basin, then back up onto the Highland Rim,” he said. “We are rating it strenuous because of the elevation change and the nine creek crossings.”

“There’s a steep ascent toward the top of the Window Cliffs,” he added.

Summers does not doubt that the area will draw crowds, though — both because of the landscape and “a rare botanical area along the cliffs and on top of the cliffs,” he said.

The area is special for “the uniqueness of the scenery and rarity of the plant species,” said Summers, who has headed ranger operations at Burgess Falls State Park since 2004.

Plans have been in the works for the state to acquire the area for many years, but didn’t come to fruition until the last three years, with the help of the Land Trust of Tennessee, he said.

Summers noted that visitors to the area won’t be allowed to climb the distinctive rock formations due both to safety and conservation concerns. “The window cliffs are limestone, and the limestone is very fragile. Just by touching it it falls apart,” he said. “The trail doesn’t go through the windows because the rock will fall apart and the trail would become very unstable.”

A grand opening ceremony for the Window Cliffs State Natural Area is tentatively scheduled for April 7.

Emily Parish, who works for the nonprofit Land Trust, describes the limestone crags and window-arch as “a one-of-a-kind thing.”

“As you’re hiking along it almost feels like they appear out of nowhere,” she said. “It is a nice surprise when you get to the end when you see those cliffs. It will just be a really pretty place for people to visit.”

Parish said the Land Trust is just recently putting the finishing touches on the property purchases to complete the area. She noted that locals have been visiting the cliffs for years, despite it being private property.

“A lot of people have been going there for a long time, perhaps not legally,” she said. “But now they will be able to go see it without trespassing.”