Patrons could save Horton eatery

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
TDEC Commissioner Jim Fyke, left, hears state Sen. Bill Ketron, center, relay concerns for Marshall County about Henry Horton State Park as Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, who brought Ron Aldridge, district manager of Duck River Electric Membership Corp. to explain how a new contract for power is to cut park expenses by more than $6,000 annually.

CHAPEL HILL - The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation wants to keep Henry Horton State Park's restaurant open, but it needs more patrons and/or a private operator to step up to the plate.

That was TDEC Commissioner Jim Fyke's message to Marshall County leaders meeting with him for a couple of hours Friday morning at the park's inn where ideas were discussed on how to increase business and reduce costs.

"The restaurant is not in the 2010-11 budget," Fyke said, "but we're absolutely committed for Marshall County to have this restaurant operating.

"It's an asset for the inn which is barely hanging on," Fyke said, knowing the state subsidizes the restaurant. It costs more to run it than the revenue it generates.

"Give us some names, contacts, anything - people we could have real visits with" to deliberate toward an operating agreement, a business plan, or an on-going relationship that will make the restaurant thrive, the commissioner said to County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, County Commissioner Tony White and Mike Wiles, executive director of the local Joint Economic and Community Development Board.

Without identifying his prospects, Wiles told Fyke he's spoken with representatives of "four or five" businesses that have been pitched the idea of running the restaurant and who have contemplated the idea.

"We've tested the waters," Wiles said. "We didn't want to parade them through in front of the staff.

"Plus, people like Tony (White) have tried to get people here after church on Sunday," the economic developer said. "Sales should be up."

The county commissioner asked Fyke "If we continue that increase, couldn't we keep it the way it is?"

TDEC's commissioner acknowledged improvement reported by White, but could only give a conditional and somewhat theoretical answer.

"Our problem is we have a new system" of accounting, Fyke explained. "We don't know our costs. We're trying to operate a business without good numbers."_White pressed: "If sales still increase; it's a possibility to continue?"

"But," Fyke interjected, "it's a steep hill."

Chapel Hill and the community around the park have "changed since I brought my family here in the 1960s and '70s," Fyke said contrasting Henry Horton to other state parks that "are more remote" and don't compete with nearby businesses.

"Horton has to have a different niche," he said. "We have to start by thinking about what Horton can be and not compare it to Fall Creek Falls;" a place people go to have a sense of being further from the rest of the world.

Yet, Farm Bureau has conferences here, as do other businesses, because, Fyke said, "You don't have all the peripherals to distract you."

He didn't mention the Cool Springs Conference Center in Franklin where conferees' spouses have commercial alternatives during a business conference.

"If we could just find more corporate conferences," said Andy Lyon, assistant commissioner for hospitality at TDEC.

State Sen. Bill Ketron said, "We've got to find something more than golf and swimming." Fyke suggested Duck River as an attraction.

Tourist packages with River Rats canoe rental service were mentioned. Lyon reminded the group there's a skeet range at the park.

"You really need the restaurant to be the place to go for a meal after church on Sunday," Fyke said.

White replied: "I see it better and better. Give us some time."

Variations on these and other ideas were mentioned. Without a solution, the restaurant remains on the state budget chopping block.

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