The Putnam County Public Library in Cookeville is hosting a roundtable meet-up for regional homeschooling families on Tuesday, March 28 at 10 a.m.

The forum’s purpose is both to introduce homeschool families to one another as well as put them in contact with library staff. The intention is to “discuss ideas, challenges, and how the library can support home learning.”

The program isn’t limited to just Cookeville and Putnam County families. “It’s open to everybody — whoever wants to come,” said Chelsea Gifford, a children’s librarian who is organizing the event.

Parents who’re thinking about homeschooling but haven’t yet committed are invited to attend as well.

More and more homeschool families are using library resources, and they tend to possess “various levels of experience and expertise” with instruction and curriculum development, said Gifford.

The meet-up event is intended to “encourage idea-sharing to see how the library can improve to help them — and how they can better network with one another through their own homeschooling efforts,” she said.

The Putnam County Library hopes homeschool families utilize library resources in the most advantageous ways possible, and the staff are looking for input on how best they can help facilitate in that regard, she added.

“We feel like the library is a natural meeting place for homeschool families where they can get materials for their curriculum,” said Gifford. “We have the ability to offer them extra programs and other things for what they are already doing at home.”

You can contact Ms. Gifford at chelseagifford@pclibrary.org, or call the library at 931-526-2416 to let them know you’re interested in attending or want to know more about the event. The library is located at 50 East Broad Street.

TN state naturalist visiting Edgar Evins and Rock Island for public hikes

Looking to amplify your sense of Upper Cumberland feral floral appreciation? Then take note of a couple guided walks through the Eastern Highland Rim woods coming up this weekend.

On Saturday, Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath will lead an interpretive wildflower hike at Edgar Evins State Park. On Sunday, he’ll do another at Rock Island State Park. Both events are free.

A lifelong Tennessean and three-decade veteran of the state park system, Hedgepath is expert at explaining the fascinating finer details of plants and wildlife and special features on Volunteer State public lands, from Mountain City to Memphis.

State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath

Hedgepath, a graduate of UT-Martin, worked for a number of years at South Cumberland State Park and Radnor Lake State Park. Based now in Montgomery Bell State Park, he travels the state putting on educational programs and guided hikes. Hedgepath is “one of the most sought after interpretive specialists in the southeastern United States,” according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“Wildflowers will be starting, although it may be a little early for some species,” Hedgepath said of the upcoming Edgar Evins and Rock Island treks. “But there will certainly be things to look at.”

At Evins State Park, Hedgepath will lead participants on an eight-mile tromp around the Merritt Ridge trail overlooking Center Hill’s emerald depths. He anticipates trout lilies and trilliums will have commenced painting the Highland Rim’s rolling slopes with spring color.

Worth mentioning is that merely to access the 5.5-mile Merritt Ridge Loop requires an initial mile-and-a-half investment on the Millennium Trail. “The walk is a little bit lengthy,” Hedgepath said. “Of course, if someone wants a shorter walk they can accompany us for a shorter distance and then turn back.”

At Rock Island, Hedgepath is planning an amiable 1.5-mile amble along the Downstream Trail to Blue Hole. The trail hugs the gushing Caney Fork just before it slackens into the Center Hill pool.

Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park

In addition to the dazzling spectacle of 80-foot Twin Falls across the river, Rock Island’s Downstream trail soaks up a lot of sunshine that warms the soil and beckons forth blooms. It therefore proffers the region’s best bet for glimpsing early-bird bursts of vernal hues.

“Wildflowers are always earlier on that trail than any other that I know of,” said Hedgepath. “The trail is truly beautiful. Hopefully there will be some trilliums and spring beauties and other early wildflowers out that day.”

If you’re interested in signing up for one of Hedgepath’s walks — or inquiring about other park activities — contact Rock Island State Park directly at (931) 686-2471, or Edgar Evins State Park at (931) 858-2115. Email Randy Hedgepath at randy.hedgepath@tn.gov.

Most all of Tennessee’s 56 state parks are hosting free guided hikes on March 18 “to celebrate the coming of spring and the bounty of recreation opportunities state parks offer,” according to a TDEC press release. The parks have information pages and event calendars at tnstateparks.com.

“For 80 years our state park system has created outdoor adventures and recreational opportunities for all Tennesseans,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of parks and conservation. “We are always excited to highlight our state’s beauty and special stories.”

For a full list of all planned hikes for March 18, go here.

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.)