Text of prepared inauguration speech delivered by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Jan. 19, 2019:

In 1796, a man and his young family began their homestead just up the way on the banks of the Cumberland River. That was the same year the great state of Tennessee was formed. 223 years and 50 governors later, we stand here on the banks of the Cumberland, celebrating our history and anticipating our future.

I am honored to stand before you today.

Thank you for that warm introduction Governor McNally. Thanks to you, to Speaker Casada and all the Members of the General Assembly. I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.

To the former governors, thank you for being here as well. It’s an honor to have you.

I would also like to thank our Constitutional Officers, the Justices of the Supreme Court, Members of Tennessee’s Congressional Delegation and all of my fellow Tennesseans who have joined us here in War Memorial Auditorium, and those watching at home. Thank you for sharing in this special moment.

I would not be here today without God’s gift to me, my wife Maria.

Throughout the past two years of campaigning, Maria has been constantly at my side. She has been steadfastly committed to me and in this process has become committed to the people of Tennessee. She will make a remarkable First Lady. Maria, thank you.

I would also like to thank my family. My mom Ann Lee is here with us today. She’s been the foundation for four generations of the Lee family, and I’m so honored to have her here with us today.

I would also like to thank my children, Jessica, Jacob, Caleb, Sarah Kate and their families. Your love and support has been strong and yet your sacrifice has been great and I thank you.

I’d like to thank Governor Bill Haslam and his wife Crissy for their tireless service to this state for the past eight years.

Governor, standing here in our state’s capital city, we see reminders everywhere of the successes of your administration. Growth and opportunity seem to be found on every corner. From education to economic development, you have laid a tremendous foundation for us to build upon. We are the envy of many states, and that is due in large part to your exceptional leadership. Thank you for your service and for your friendship.

That man I told you about that settled with his family on the banks of the Cumberland River the year that this state was founded — his name was Charles Braxton Lee.

He was my seventh great grandfather.

We stand here today as the beneficiaries not of great governments of the past–but of the lives of the great men and women who have come before us.

Men and women who forged difficult lives on the frontier, formed small towns, and eventually, larger cities. People who cleared the land and planted crops, started businesses, worked in factories, formed industries.

Creating, as it says on our seal, a state of commerce and agriculture, a state which now stands as one of the most prosperous in the nation.

It did not simply happen, and it was never inevitable.

It happened because of men and women who came before us, who educated the children of Tennessee in one room school houses, and created our education system.

Men and women who cared for our sick on the frontier and then built clinics and hospitals and a healthcare system.

Men and women who protected us and built a system of law and justice, circuit riders who built a community of faith.

It happened because of men and women who struggled to overcome injustices and inequalities in our society … from slavery to suffrage to civil rights.

And it happened because men and women fought and sacrificed, sometimes their lives from the Revolutionary War, until today, defending and protecting the very freedoms that we enjoy today.

And most of all, it happened because of the favor of God Himself. In spite of our inadequacies and our weaknesses, He has been strong on our behalf. He has blessed us indeed. And as governor of Tennessee, I will daily ask Him for his wisdom, guidance, and direction.

We will need that wisdom, for despite the blessings we enjoy, we still face great challenges. Tennesseans, we stand in one of the great states in all of America.

But out greatness has never come from what any one individual did.

Our greatness has always come from the collective lives, service, commitment and sacrifice of those who came before us—because of what we have always done as a people together, in community with each other, in service to our state and to our neighbors.

Last year, Maria and I drove back and forth to every corner of Tennessee in an old RV, and we found out something: no matter whether you live in the mountains of East Tennessee, or the fields of West Tennessee, whether you live in a small town or downtown, people want the same thing: a good job, good school for their kids, and a safe neighborhood.

It’s true that we have good jobs and great prosperity here. We have record low unemployment and taxes. Companies are moving here and small businesses are starting here.

And yet, we also have 15 counties in poverty, all rural, all Tennesseans.

We have some of the most economically distressed zip codes in America — right in the heart of our greatest cities.

When we consider our state, we see how fortunate we are, and yet, we also see how much we have to do.

Not only do Tennesseans want a good job; they want good schools for their kids. We’ve made tremendous progress in education in this state — in part due to great education Governors who have come before me. In fact, Tennessee has the highest rate of improvement in educational outcomes in America. And yet, we’re still in the bottom half of states.

I believe that education is more than a test score — it’s about preparing a child for success in life. A resurgence of vocational, technical and agricultural education, and the inclusion of civics and character education, combined with reforms, will take Tennessee to the top tier of states.

Tennesseans do want good jobs and schools, but they want safe neighborhoods too. And while most neighborhoods are safe, our violent crime rate is on the rise in every major city. We can be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time. For violent criminals and traffickers, justice should be swift and certain.

But here’s the reality, 95% of the people in prison today are coming out. And today in Tennessee, half of them commit crimes again and return to prison within the first three years. We need to help non-violent criminals re-enter society, and not re-enter prison.

I believe we can do it and create safer neighborhoods for everyone in Tennessee.

These are just a few examples of the challenges that we face, and there are other challenges we can’t ignore.

The opioid epidemic that is ravaging our state.

Too few Tennesseans have access to healthcare that they can afford. And our rural communities are struggling.

These are the challenges of our day, and history will judge us based on how we meet them.

As honored as I am to be your next governor, I know that no governor can solve all the problems we face—in fact, no government can.

Government is not the answer to our greatest challenges.

Government’s role is to protect our rights and our liberty and our freedom.

I believe in a limited government, that provides unlimited opportunity for we the people to address the greatest challenges of our day.

The truth is that most of the things that have created the greatness of Tennessee don’t have very much to do with government at all.

Our strength has always come from our people, people like those First Tennesseans, who came here with hope, who worked together to create this great state.

We are famous for our three grand divisions of East, Middle and West Tennessee, represented by the three stars on our flag. It is important however to remember that the blue circle around the three stars on our flag represents the unity of our state. I believe that Tennesseans have much more that unites us than divides us.

I believe that one way that we unite is by following the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, I believe it is the key to American greatness. Our greatness has never come from government compulsion or power. Our greatness has always come from our love for each other, our commitment to our fellow citizens, our neighbors.

If we remember that commandment and walk in that spirit, our greatest days will always lie before us.

So much has changed in the last 223 years, but some things haven’t changed at all.

Once again, here we are: Tennesseans, standing on the banks of the Cumberland, with great challenges and great opportunities before us — as in need of the Wisdom and favor of God as much as ever — and with a deep commitment to each other.

These last few months especially, I’ve thought a lot about Braxton Lee and those first Tennesseans.

I wonder what they told each other and how they dealt with their struggles. I think a lot about who they were.

They were strong and courageous. They were faithful. They were committed. They were certain.

They were Tennesseans.

I’ve also thought a lot about our descendants, seven generations from now. What will they say of us?

Were we strong and courageous, faithful, committed, certain? Did we come together to meet the challenges we faced, with courage, optimism and belief in each other?

If we meet the challenges of this moment, they too will say of us– “They were Tennesseans.”

Thank you for this great honor, may God bless each of you and may God Bless the great state of Tennessee.

Crews are beginning to embark upon construction of the new lodge and restaurant at Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Regional politicians and state government officials gathered this week at Fall Creek Falls for a ground-breaking ceremony at the lake construction zone at Fall Creek Falls. The planned new 98,000-square-foot will be built to “to reflect the natural setting of the park,” according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks.

Breaking ground at Fall Creek Falls State Park are, from left, are Erik Pyle of Bell Construction; Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley; Lt. Gov. Randy McNally; Rep. Cameron Sexton; TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill; Deputy Gov. Jim Henry; Ann McGuaran, state architect; Rep. Kelly Keisling; Rep. Ron Travis; General Services Deputy Commissioner John Hull; Ron Lustig of Earl Swensson Associates; and Park Manager Jacob Young of Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The new hotel and lake-facing restaurant will include “three floors of visitor space,” along with “indoor and outdoor gathering areas with larger meeting rooms for conferences.”

The projects designers have said the inn will “provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors.”

Walking trails around the lodge will connect up with other trails that wind off into the remote reaches of the park.

“At Fall Creek Falls, the new inn and restaurant are forecast to generate $278,000 per year in sales and occupancy taxes, a growth of $90,000 per year compared to revenue from the previous facility,” according to the TDEC press release. “Short-term, construction is expected to bring in an estimated $14.7 million in taxable spending to the area, along with more than 100 construction jobs.”

Construction is anticipated finish up in 2020.

The Fall Creek Falls project, which also includes other upgrades to existing park facilities and infrastructure,  is part of more than $175 million in capital projects appropriated for state parks since Republican Gov. Bill Haslam took office, the TDEC release noted. Haslam is finishing up his second and final term as Tennessee’s highest elected official.

“This reinvestment in Tennessee’s most famous state park is indicative of similar reinvestments made from Memphis to Kingsport,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner TDEC. “Over $175 million in capital reinvestment is already paying back dividends through increased visitation, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth.”

The 111th Tennessee General Assembly commenced in Nashville on Tuesday, with both chambers of the legislative branch selecting members of the Republican caucus to preside over the respective lawmaking bodies.

The House and Senate are again this session dominated by Republicans. For the past six years the GOP has enjoyed supermajority control of both statehouse chambers, as will be the case now for at least two more years.

For that reason, when the Republican House and Senate caucus members met late last year to choose their nominees for the respective speaker posts, it was a foregone conclusion that their picks would go on to ultimately win approval before the full legislative chambers.

In the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge was approved to serve a second term as the chamber’s gavel-bearer. McNally has served 32 years in the state Senate, and before that eight years in the House.

All 26 Republican senators present voted for McNally. All five of the chamber’s Democrats abstained, although they did not nominate a speaker candidate of their own.

As speaker of the Senate, McNally is also officially designated as Tennessee’s lieutenant governor.

Floor sessions in the House of Representatives for the next two years will be supervised by Williamson County Republican Glen Casada.

A 10-term House lawmaker and longtime fixture in lower-chamber GOP caucus leadership circles, Casada is replacing Beth Harwell at the speaker’s podium.

Harwell, a Nashville Republican who holds the distinction of serving as Tennessee’s first female legislative speaker, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and didn’t seek re-election to the statehouse.

Casada beat out the Democrats’ speaker nominee, Karen Camper of Memphis, by a vote of 75-22. Three members of the minority caucus — Johnny Shaw of Bolivar, John DeBerry of Memphis and John Mark Windle of Livingston — crossed party lines and voted for Casada. Another Democrat, Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory, abstained.

During remarks after taking the speaker’s oath of office, Casada noted that 28 of this session’s House lawmakers are new faces in the General Assembly. “Now that our elections are over and behind us, we must come together and tackle the greater task, which is governing,” he said.

Casada promised that the House will under his leadership assume a more active role in state government budget-writing and spending oversight. He said he wants to see the General Assembly more assertively exercise its “voice intended by the Tennessee Constitution.”

Lawmakers, lobbyists and Capitol-watchers can also expect “a committee process that is more balanced and ensures important pieces of legislation have a fair opportunity to make it to the House floor, instead of being held up by technicalities,” Casada said.

He pledged that “partnership, not partisanship” will mark his leadership style.

“We will…work to build a bond of bipartisanship across this chamber,” Casada said.

A special state legislative committee tasked with assessing government transparency in Tennessee appears to have concluded that tinkering with state’s public records statutes may be in order.

Just how comprehensive a rewrite, and where exactly to start, remain unclear, though.

Last week, House and Senate lawmakers serving on the Open Records Ad Hoc Committee concluded their assignment of investigating and recommending changes to transparency rules that stipulate what documents and information is and is not available for public inspection.

But committee chairman Jason Zachary, a Republican state representative from Knoxville, said the process of identifying and deciding how to remedy legitimate transparency trouble-spots has been tougher than expected.

“We didn’t realize what an extensive and exhaustive lift this would be,” he said.

As a matter of law in Tennessee, all public records are presumed open for public inspection unless otherwise indicated by the Legislature.

Over the years, however, lawmakers have become adept at stipulating that some information or records created or covered under statutes and program the General Assembly enacts are in fact exempt from that assumption of transparency.

“Essentially, if there is a law saying that the record is not open to the public, then it cannot be released,” Jason Mumpower, chief of staff to the state comptroller, told members of the committee back in August.

“The amount of exceptions have grown over time,” added Mumpower.

In 1955, when the Act was passed, there were just two exceptions to it written into law. By 1988 there were 39. Now there are 563 exceptions, Mumpower said.

The comptroller’s office tabulated all the existing state-law exceptions to the Open Records Act for the committee to scrutinize.

Trying to protect legitimate concerns of privacy and confidentiality on the one hand, and ensuring the public’s right to keep a close watch on the activities of government on the other, can make for a tricky balancing act, said Mumpower.

“Government officials certainly have an obligation to quickly provide access to public records, but they also have a duty to ensure that they do not disclose confidential information,” he said, adding that lawsuits have arisen in Tennessee as a result of one party thinking a record was open under the wording of a law, and another party believing it confidential under the very same wording.

Zachary anticipates a bureaucratically laborious task that will take time and require more staff resources. “Some states have taken up to ten years to walk through those exemptions,” he said. Nevertheless, the committee is expected to advise the full Legislature that the time has come to develop a process for “sunsetting” certain existing exceptions deemed unnecessary or overly broad.

An easier mission will be making sure that more sunlight is cast on the process on the front end, Zachary predicted.

Requiring that expressly designated committees in both House and Senate chambers specifically consider bills with transparency law exemptions provisions tacked on — and explicitly determine whether those provisions are indeed warranted — would help address that issue, he said.

Bill Lee, who will take the reins as the state’s governor from Bill Haslam in January, has indicated he too perceives a need for more openness in Tennessee government.

Lee has promised a “complete overhaul of our open records and open meetings acts to make government more transparent.”

“Tennessee taxpayers deserve a transparent and open government,” Lee’s transition website declares. He’s also committed to establishing “a new program to invite and receive public comments on new laws before signing.”

Furthermore, Lee says he’ll make it a priority “to get out of the bubble of Nashville to deliver State of the State addresses in all three Grand Divisions throughout his tenure.”

Incoming governors visit White House

Tennessee’s gubernatorial election winner, Republican Bill Lee, was among a group of more than a dozen new voter-endorsed state-level chief executives from around the country to meet with President Donald Trump this week.

Lee and 21 other incoming governors were invited the the White House for the Dec. 13 gathering — although eight Democrats were no-shows, according to news reports.

During the meeting, Lee sat between Democratic Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Vice President Mike Pence, who served as GOP governor of Indiana from 2013 to 2017.

When his time came to introduce himself to the president, Lee said he was “honored” to be in the room with Trump and the vice president, and that he looks forward to “serving the people of Tennessee and partnering with you.”

Trump responded, “Fantastic race — you did a great job.”

Lee, a wealthy Tennessee businessman, earned Trump’s endorsement after he bested a crowded field of GOP candidates for governor in the August 2 primary.

“Congratulations to Bill Lee of Tennessee on his big primary win for Governor last night,” Trump tweeted on Aug. 3. “He ran a great campaign and now will finish off the job in November. Bill has my total and enthusiastic Endorsement!”

Lee went on in the general election to defeat the Democrat’s candidate, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, by 20 points and more than 470,000 votes, 59 percent to 39 percent.

A national organization that tracks efforts on higher education campuses to suppress the exercise of free speech has declared that Tennessee is, on whole, basically average when it comes to universities respecting First Amendment liberties.

Given the disquieting level of intolerance for controversial opinions and divergent points of view at American colleges these days, that isn’t all that great.

“The vast majority of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus,” according to a press release this week from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. “In Tennessee, 88 percent of institutions restrict some amount of free speech.”

FIRE recently published a nationwide study titled, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.”

In the report, the Philadelphia-based group surveyed written policies pertaining to protections and restrictions on free speech at both public and private universities. The FIRE researchers concluded that nearly 90 percent of the schools they examined “maintain policies that restrict — or too easily could restrict — student and faculty expression.”

“Colleges should be a place for open debate and intellectual inquiry, but today, almost all colleges silence expression through policies that are often illiberal and, at public institutions, unconstitutional,” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s lead author of the study.

FIRE uses a three-tiered system of rating individual schools that applies “red light,” “yellow light” or “green light” designations. A “red light” means an institution maintains “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” A “yellow” rating means the school enforces policies that “by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” A “green light” signifies that “a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech.”

“A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression,” the report notes. “It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

Both Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Tech University received yellow ratings.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville earned a green light, making it “one of just two SEC East universities to earn FIRE’s highest rating for speech.”

Of the eight Tennessee schools FIRE rated, only Tennessee State University was hit with a red light grade.

All in all, the FIRE report’s authors say there is actually some room for optimism in the report — despite the continuing reality that “far too many colleges across the country fail to live up to their free speech obligations in policy and in practice.”

For the eleventh year in a row, the share of schools earning a red light has gone down. Last year it was above 32 percent, this year it is 28.5.

“In further good news, more and more colleges and universities continue to adopt policy statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015,” the report’s executive summary observes. “As of this writing, 50 schools or faculty bodies have endorsed a version of the free speech policy statement known as the ‘Chicago Statement,’ with 14 adoptions in 2018 alone.”

During Tennessee’s 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure called the “Campus Free Speech Protection Act.” That legislation directed public institutions across the Volunteer State to establish policies that “embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty.”

In a press release issued after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed the act into law, FIRE described it as containing “some of the country’s strongest protections for student and faculty speech on public college campuses.”

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE U.S ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, NOVEMBER 30, 2018:

SILVER POINT, Tenn. (Nov. 30, 2018) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District and contractor Thalle Construction Company are moving towards the conclusion of the Center Hill Dam Safety Rehabilitation Project.

The start of December marks the completion of foundation preparation for a “roller-compacted concrete” reinforcing berm downstream of Center Hill’s auxiliary dam, work that began in January 2018. A minimum of two-feet of conventional concrete, referred to as ‘mud matting,’ was placed on the 125-foot wide by 800-foot long cleaned bedrock base to allow for a good working surface to begin placement of the RCC.

The Corps blasted and excavated about 65,000 cubic yards of rock to create a solid, notched base for the large 100-foot high by 1000-foot long concrete RCC berm. The exposed rock base was then geo-mapped.

“Geo-mapping gives the agency a detailed reference picture of the bedrock, which will be the natural base of the berm foundation,” said Tommy Hollowell, Nashville District geologist. “This will allow us to plan placement of the expansion and contraction joints in the concrete berm and to monitor specific rock formations if any future issues arise.”

About two-foot diameter rocks and smaller, recycled from stabilization excavation at Center Hill Dam’s left rim, have been placed between the auxiliary dam and RCC berm. The rock fill will place pressure on the downstream auxiliary dam embankment and reduce the risk of internal erosion.

Grouting 25 feet into the mud matting and bed rock is also nearing 70 percent complete.

Linda Adcock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District project manager, explained that the grout fills any voids that may exist between the two layers, and ‘locks’ the layers together ensuring a solid foundation for the placement of concrete to suport the berm. Concrete placement is expected to begin in January.

Thalle Construction Company has the concrete batch plant equipment in place to produce the special type of concrete, RCC, which resembles more of a solid than a liquid. As this concrete is placed on the berm site, it will be spread by a blade and compacted with a vibrating roller into one-foot layers.

“Roller compacted concrete resembles a mixture of dirt and rock more than typical, conventional concrete, due to its low moisture content,” Adcock said. “The advantage of this type of concrete is place using traditional road paving equipment which is generally much more efficient than placing typical conventional concrete.”

Alan Malcomb, civil engineer and contracting officer for the Roller Compacted Concrete phase, said the winter weather may pose a challenge the Corps of Engineers and Thalle Construction because when temperatures drop below 35 degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation exceeds a tenth of an inch per hour, concrete placement must be halted.

As work approaches the last chapter for the concrete berm, site restoration on the southwest side of Center Hill Dam is underway. The area previously known as Eisenhower Park or Center Hill Park has served as a work platform for the Dam Safety Rehabilitation Project during the past 10 years. Bluegrass Construction Corporation is grading the area and will build picnic sites, three shelters, a comfort station, and a boat ramp allowing access to Center Hill Lake. The RCC Berm and the restored boat ramp and lake access are planned to be finished by the end of 2019. The RCC berm completion is necessary before Center Hill Lake can return to normal operating lake levels.

(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps, and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps. The public can also follow Center Hill Lake on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/centerhilllake.)

Press Release from the Transition Team of Tennessee Governor-Elect Bill Lee, November 27, 2018

Transition names three commissioners and several key personnel to the governor’s staff

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Lee announced his first cabinet appointments as well as several key appointments to his forthcoming gubernatorial staff.

“We have received a tremendous amount of interest from Tennesseans across the state who are interested in serving our administration,” said Lee. “I am proud to announce these first members of my cabinet and staff. They are highly qualified to lead in their respective areas and will be an important part in helping our state continue to grow.”

The Governor-elect named the following appointments to his cabinet today:

  • Danielle Barnes – Department of Human Services
  • Stuart McWhorter – Department of Finance and Administration
  • Marie Williams – Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Danielle Barnes currently serves as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, and she will continue in that role. Prior to joining DHS, she served as Deputy Commissioner & General Counsel for the Tennessee Department of Human Resources. In her capacity, she had oversight over all legal issues within the Department, offering counsel and advice to her agency, other state agencies and individuals on employment law matters. Commissioner Barnes grew up in the Knoxville area. She received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College and her law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Stuart McWhorter currently chairs inauguration planning efforts. He served as Finance Chairman for Governor-elect Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. McWhorter serves as Chairman and President of Clayton Associates, founded in 1996, an investment management company primarily focused on the early stage investment cycle in the healthcare and technology industries.

Crockett County native Marie Williams currently serves as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), and she will continue in that role. She leads the Department and their over 1,800 employees in assisting individuals in securing treatment and recovery services for serious mental illness, serious emotional disturbances, and substance abuse disorders. Prior to assuming the Commissioner role, she served as Deputy Commissioner and as the Assistant Commissioner of Mental Health Services where she worked collaboratively to expand consumer-based recovery services.

Governor-elect Lee also announced the following senior staff roles in the governor’s office:

  • Blake Harris – Chief of Staff
  • Butch Eley – Chief Operating Officer
  • Lang Wiseman – Deputy to the Governor & Chief Counsel
  • Chris Walker – Communications Director
  • Tony Niknejad – Policy Director
  • Laine Arnold – Press Secretary

Blake Harris currently serves as the Executive Director for Governor-elect Lee’s transition leadership team. He is an attorney and served as General Consultant for Bill Lee’s successful gubernatorial campaign. Responsible for overall campaign strategy for the campaign, he built the campaign team that helped propel Bill to victory this year.

Butch Eley currently serves as the Chairman for Governor-elect Lee’s transition leadership team. He most recently served as Chief Growth Officer of DBI Services, one of the nation’s leading providers of performance-driven operations and maintenance and asset management services. Prior to that, he founded Infrastructure Corporation of America in 1998 to provide comprehensive asset management solutions for infrastructure assets. Butch served on Bill Lee’s Business Advisory Coalition during his campaign and is a former member of the Republican Governor’s Association Executive Roundtable.

Lang Wiseman served as Campaign Counsel to Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. He founded Wiseman Bray PLLC in Memphis and specializes in business and commercial litigation. Lang currently serves on the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees and also currently serves on Gov. Haslam’s Council for Judicial Appointments.

Chris Walker served as Communications Advisor to Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. Most recently, he worked in communications advisory roles with the American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation. He has served in various capacities for former U.S. Senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson and served as Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Richard Burr (NC). He also served in the George W. Bush administration as a Public Affairs officer at the Department of the Treasury and as a Defense Fellow at the Department of Defense.

Tony Niknejad served as the Policy Director for Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. Prior to that, he served as Tennessee State Director for the American Federation for Children. He also worked with the Republican Party of Kentucky in their historic retaking of the state House in 2016, as well as two Republican campaigns for congressional candidates in Georgia and Tennessee. He has also served as a policy staffer at the Tennessee State Senate and is the former chairman of the Davidson County Young Republicans.

Laine Arnold currently serves as the Press Secretary for the Transition. Previously, Arnold served in the same role for Governor-elect Lee’s General Election campaign. She also served as Press Secretary for the Randy Boyd for Governor campaign in 2017 and 2018.

On November 7, the transition unveiled a new website – transition.billlee.com. The site includes detailed information about the Governor-elect’s policy priorities, a section where Tennesseans can submit their resumes to potentially join his team, and most importantly, a section where Tennesseans can share their ideas with the Governor-elect and his team.

Since launching the site, the Lee Transition Team has received information from over 900 applicants who are interested in serving in the administration and nearly 2,000 ideas for bettering state government.

Fascinating history accompanies marvelous scenery around state park

State agencies and local Warren County business and political leaders are analyzing the prospect of restoring a long-shuttered historical landmark that was once a hub of commerce and industrial activity.

Mill workers around the turn of the 19th century,

Built on the banks of the Caney Fork River in 1892, the Great Falls Cotton Mill operated for just a decade before its wheelhouse turbine system was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood in 1902. Nevertheless, in that relatively short span it became a prominent feature of the local landscape and economy, even sprouting its own adjoining company town known as Falls City.

“The mill was operate by a flume, turbine, ropes and pulleys powered by the water diverted from the falls,” reads to a placard near the mill. “The operation included the manufacture of cotton, wool products, and was known for its heavy cotton sheeting.”

An information page about the mill at TNGenWeb.org, an online genealogical research organization, recounts that the facility’s purpose was to “manufacture, spin, weave, bleach, dye, print, finish and sell all goods of every kind made of wool and cotton.”

Details and specifics about costs and timelines for the project are sketchy at this time, but the overarching goal is to boost visitation and enhance tourism in the area, officials say. The project is still in a “conceptual phase,” according to a Nov. 14 press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“We are excited to pursue restoration of this important piece of Warren County history,” said TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill. Preserving and protecting “the cultural significance of Tennessee’s special places” is part of the agency’s mission, he said.

Falls below Great Falls Cotton Mill. A cataclysmic flood of the Caney Fork River in 1902 destroyed the mill’s turbine.

The mill property is situated along the Caney Fork River about about a quarter mile below Great Falls Dam, which was completed in 1917 by the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Today the mill’s remains and the dam are owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is involved in the restoration discussions.

According to TDEC, other agencies mulling the costs, rewards and logistics of refurbishing the mill are the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Historical Commission, the McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, the Industrial Development Board of McMinnville-Warren County and various local elected officials.

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, said his agency is “pleased to be a part of this effort to restore the Great Falls Cotton Mill. The project would fit well with the commission’s efforts “to preserve historically significant properties that are part of the rich history of Tennessee,” he added.

Rock Island State Park was established in 1969. However, the community of Rock Island dates back to the early days of Tennessee. Not only was it the first permanent settlement in Warren County, but the old Tennessee Superior Court, a forerunner to the state supreme court, would from time to time hold proceedings there. Andrew Jackson sat on the Superior Court in the late 1700s and early 1800s, nearly three decades before he served as president of the United States.

In order to improve access and parking and enhance the surrounding “green space” for people to safely and enjoyably explore the Great Falls Mill and surrounding grounds in the event that it’s transformed into a special attraction, rerouting the section of Highway 287 that runs by the mill may become necessary, officials say.

“During peak season, we have a lot of visitors who park in this area and our goal is to provide a safe experience that gives park-goers access to the historical and natural sites they’ve come to see,” said Rock Island State Park Manager Damon Graham.

Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed

The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.

Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.

In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”

“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”

Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce

Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.

Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund,  the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.

State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.

Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.

Inaugural Virgin Falls Thru-Hike Expedition. Pictured at left are those who participated on Sept. 15 in the first organized hike along the newly opened 9-mile Lost Creek to Virgin Falls thru-hike trail. Left to right: Bob Ragland, Michael Faehl, Lisa Faehl, Mark Engler, Ranger Stuart Carroll, Gretchen Weir, Phil Hodge, Greg Geer and TennGreen’s Steven Walsh, who organized the event.

Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”

Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.

“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”

Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”

But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.

“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”

Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”

Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.

“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.

Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.

Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.

“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.

Communication and Collaboration

More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”

Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.

And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”

Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.

Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.

“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”

Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.

“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.

TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.

Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.

Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”

“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”

“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.

Tying It All Together

The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.

State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”

For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.

Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.

Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.

“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.

Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”

The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.

“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.