Politicians fight to keep TDEC from destroying Horton Inn

Wednesday, March 22, 2017
The Inn at Henry Horton State Park is threatened with demolition after funds to renovate the facility were left out of the proposed state budget for next year. Representative Rick Tillis and Senator Jim Tracy met with residents concerned about the impact that losing the inn would have county-wide. Both are meeting with Governor Bill Haslam today to make the case for renovating the inn as opposed to demolishing it.
Tribune photo by Scott Pearson

Marshall County residents are starting to rally in order to preserve the inn at Henry Horton State Park.

State Representative Rick Tillis held an informational meeting at the park on Friday, March 9, to discuss the next year’s capital budget request for Henry Horton from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees the state park system.

As it stands, Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed budget for 2017-18 includes $10.05 million for capital projects at the park, but is missing the approximately $6.7 million that TDEC asked for to renovate the inn at the park.

The budget request includes, among other projects, funding to build a new restaurant and visitor center at the park, but, as it is currently written, would demolish the 60 room inn, without replacement.

The request would leave the 12-room motel facility at the park as well as the five cabins that the park offers.

“I’m hoping we can intervene,” Tillis said. “It’s early in the budget and I think that we might be able to get this back in.”

State Senator Jim Tracy, who was also in attendance, emphasized as well that budget discussions were still ongoing and that feedback from meetings like this one would play a part in final decisions.

“I don’t think anything is etched in stone,” he said.

Since the meeting, Tillis and Tracy have scheduled a meeting with Haslam on March 22 to make a direct appeal to restore the funding for the inn’s rehabilitation.

Upwards of 60 people attended the meeting, including several county commissioners as well as elected officials from both Chapel Hill and Lewisburg, as well as members of the Friends of Henry Horton group.

“It’s more than I expected, all word of mouth,” Tillis said. “It shows how important (preserving the inn) is.”

The inn is the only lodging facility in northern Marshall County and concerns were expressed about the impact that the loss of the facility would have on the community as well as the rest of the park’s operations.

Horton is the only state park with dedicated fiber internet service, which should serve as a key selling point for business meetings and conferences, but without sufficient lodging, the park will not be able to attract that business.

Restaurant revenues would also be damaged by a lack of overnight guests and the development of the park overall diminished.

Generally, sentiment among the speakers was that the state was being shortsighted by considering demolition of the inn, which would impact the entire county economically.

“We need this hotel to be first class,” said Lewisburg Councilman Steve Thomas.

Christina Treglia, TDEC’s regional director for external affairs, said that the $6.7 million for the inn had, at some point during the budget process, been dropped because the projected revenues following that investment did not justify the cost.

It was unclear, however, what time frame had been used in calculating the return on investment.

Asked about specific amounts per each proposed project at the park, she said the this early in the budget process the total number was an estimate, without specific cost breakdowns.

This is not the first time that lodging at Henry Horton has been threatened. A 2013 strategic plan for TDEC recommended either the privatization or demolition of the inn.

Lodging at state parks has lagged behind state averages for private hotels, in part because years of deferred maintenance at the state parks have left their properties feeling dated and worn out.

County Commissioner R.L. Williams said that his family had wanted to plan a family reunion for Horton, but the condition of the rooms pushed their event elsewhere, despite having to pay a higher room rate.

Occupancy for the inn at Horton had declined from 35.3 percent in 2010 to 23.9 percent in 2014, before rebounding in 2015 to 30.1 percent. Numbers available for 2016 in the report show the rate increasing three out of four months as well.

The state’s turn toward demolition in this budget runs counter to the recommendations of a report, commissioned by TDEC, published in August of 2016.

The 115-page market study from a consulting firm specialized in the lodging industry supported the renovation of the inn, as opposed to either demolition or the construction of a new facility.

“Our research found that there is high lodging demand in the greater market. A repositioned or new facility at Henry Horton should be competitive with that market and see an increase in demand,” summarized the report.

The study found the inn building in relatively good structural condition, meaning renovation instead of more expensive reconstruction was possible.

The study was positive about the potential for the hospitality operations at the park once the investment had been made.

“It is logical that a remodeled and repositioned lodging facility; utilizing the existing facilities that embrace the park surroundings and provides adequate lodging options, in conjunction with a new restaurant and renovated meeting and event spaces, would not only be a success but a regional destination for events, lodging and park activities,” concluded the report. “This will be a step above the regional competition and will grow over time into a viable business model.”

Their projections for a renovated inn predict a 53 percent occupancy in the first year after the renovation is complete, growing to 68 percent in five years, with additional growth in the restaurant and related event space revenues.

Tillis committed to keeping attendees informed of developments as budget discussions continued and to convey the support for the park in Marshall County to state government.

”I’m not for throwing tax-payer dollars around,” said Tillis, “but if we do have a surplus this year, I think we need to make the investment.”