Horton Park restaurant will remain open

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

State lawmakers have mandated continued operations of the restaurant at Henry Horton State Park, according to state and county officials.

"So," Jim Fyke, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said Monday, "the restaurant will not close in October 2010 as planned."

However, it seems as though the restaurant's deficit can't be eliminated, so private operators are still sought, the TDEC commissioner said, reiterating an option discussed on April 9 when Fyke visited with Marshall County leaders at the park.

"While there is a mandate to keep the restaurant open for another year, there were no funds appropriated to support the $245,000 yearly operational deficit," Fyke said.

TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart explained, "The state appropriation cut for Henry Horton still stands, although we will keep the restaurant open for another year. The funds for the restaurant were earmarked to come from existing funds appropriated to the department.

"It's my understanding the department has no fund balance or reserves available for the purpose of operating state parks," Lockhart said. "In order to keep the restaurant at Henry Horton open without adequate funding and live within our budget, the department will have to make the restaurant operation more efficient by reducing costs and increasing revenue, or generate sufficient savings in other areas to offset any operating losses from the restaurant."

Fyke continued in a statement provided to the Tribune, "Revenues are slightly up from this time last year and operating expenses are slightly down." Given the disparity between previous deficits and improved operations, the commissioner concluded, "We do not believe the restaurant will be able to break even over the course of the year."

Tennessee's budget year starts July 1. From April to October, state parks' seasonal operations are good, TDEC records show.

"It's the remaining five months during the off-season that cause some concern," Fyke said. "We ... will continue to promote the restaurant as the limited budget allows.

"Recognizing the restaurant is important to the park's inn, we thought a viable option would be to find someone who could lease the restaurant operations," he said. "We've supported that option, but have not yet found a lessee at this time."

The anomaly of mandating operations without new funding for the deficit would appear to have left the restaurant in what might be described as a legislative limbo -- confined by to an intermediate place by financial neglect yet otherwise authorized for paradise.

"We salvaged 13 jobs," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said Friday evening. "And keeping the restaurant open means a continued flow of sales taxes from the restaurant to the county.

"And it will probably have an impact on the hotel motel tax because people will be willing to stay there," Liggett said.

The county mayor and state lawmakers Eddie Bass and Bill Ketron have for months been discussing the value of the restaurant to the inn at the state park just south of Chapel Hill.

"I went to Nashville ... to make sure there was a back-up plan," Liggett said of his lobbying efforts, knowing the restaurant and its employees were in jeopardy.

"The commissioner (of TDEC) had spoken about leasing the restaurant... There was no back-up plan at that moment. It was on that request that they started to find money," Liggett said, emphasizing it couldn't have been done without others' help.

On April 9, Fyke told Liggett, Ketron, County Commissioner Tony White and other area leaders that the restaurant was losing too much money to justify keeping it open.

White made an appeal to the public, saying that if the restaurant is to remain open, it must have customers.

Reached by cell phone just before the House went back into session on Friday afternoon, Bass reported, "The state budget is passed. The restaurant is there."

While the budget bill does not have the governor's signature, the state's spending plan would appear to be ready for the formal process of creating a document for the governor's signature and having a budget document that could be posted on the Internet, according to Bass.

On Monday morning, Ketron, the state senator representing Marshall County, was asked how much money was kept in the state budget for the park. Without documents immediately at hand, Ketron said he thought it was about $300,000, probably more.

However, "It preserves the 13 jobs."

Speaking more directly to the status of the restaurant funding, Bass said, "We put this money in the appropriations bill on the House side and it was the budgeted and we presented it to the Senate. They approved it last night. We just voted on it.

"Long story short, it's in the budget for another year," Bass said.

"That was our big concern," the state representative said, indicating that people have been able to show that the restaurant is "doing much better" and there's been a successful effort to "help people realize it's a big part of the park."

Ketron described the reconciliation of the House and Senate versions of the state budget that honored his appropriation amendment for the continuance of Horton Restaurant.

"It all came down to give and take in the House and Senate," he said, explaining top lawmakers "went behind closed doors in the Senate speaker's conference room and what came out included the restaurant... It was, kind of like, we get this, you get that and when it got down to Horton, it came down as next in line in the House side.

"It was placed in the budget for that continuance... It would have been a private restaurant if we hadn't gotten this money, but we can't stop here...

"This is only the beginning to make the restaurant more robust by all the items we talked about (on April 9)," he said. Those things include increasing sales, weekend entertainment and, among other things, having a farmers market at a picnic pavilion.

He's also contacted a canoe rental business about participating.

Fyke said, "We are ... encouraged by the recent compliments we've received that indicate that food quality and operations are improving."

Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee State University students are working with TDEC on a plan to upgrade the restaurant, he said.

"Finally, we will continue to work with the local community as well and ask them to help us promote the restaurant and drive customers there so we can see revenues grow."