As the longest continuously-operating Inn in the State of Tennessee, the Hale Springs once attracted tourists from far and wide. Although the Inn’s rich history and architectural significance were largely overlooked by locals: outsiders inexplicably flocked to the 183-year-old landmark.
The Inn was built in 1824 by John McKinney, has been occupied by several notable visitors: including United States Presidents: Jackson, Polk and Johnson, and briefly served as Union headquarters during the Civil War. After the war, the name of the Inn was changed to Hale Springs Hotel and the establishment became a regular stopping point for tourists who were on their way to see Hale Springs Resort, a famous hot mineral springs located about 15 miles north of the Inn.
During the early 80’s, the Inn was purchased and renovated by Capt. Carl Netherland-Brown. It remained in operation until 1998 when, due to declining profits, Netherland-Brown opted to close the doors. The decision made news statewide and, according to many Main Street retailers, Rogersville experienced an almost instant economic downturn.
Now, just as Netherland-Brown was shutting down his business, President Bill Clinton was penning his name on the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century (TEA-21). The TEA-21 is built upon the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act of 91. The Transportation Act of 91 provided funding for construction of the walking trail and sidewalks throughout downtown Rogersville, federal monies which were awarded largely due to the efforts of Carolynn Elder, then-director of Rogersville Heritage Association.
Elder, whose ferocious promotion of local history is masked by her effervescent Southern charm, has been the driving force behind many successful preservation projects. So, it should come as no surprise that when gubernatorial candidate, Phil Bredesen came stumping through Rogersville in 2002, Carolynn ambushed him. Following coffee with several community leaders, including local realtor/farmer and former State Rep, Ken Givens, Carolynn invited the gentleman on a stroll and strolled them right to the Inn. According to Givens, Carolynn talked of her interest in getting grant funding to help with the restoration.
In January of 2003, Bredesen took office as Tennessee’s 48th Governor. By May of 2003, the Heritage Association of Rogersville (formerly RHA) purchased the $329,000 Inn property as well as the adjoining courtyard area, valued at $100,000. In March of 2004, Bredesen announced that the that the Rogersville Heritage Association had been awarded an enhancement grant in the amount of $746,372.00 to be used in the restoration of the historic Inn.
However, Bredesen, in his announcement, misspoke.
According to TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely, staff member Marilyn Holland and attorney for the Town of Rogersville, William Phillips, state and federal authorities require that TEA-21 funds be given to other governmental entities. In fact, no grant of this type has ever been awarded to a non-profit organization. So, while the money was set aside for Hale Springs Inn; it was never officially awarded to the Heritage Association.
Consequently, in June of 2005 and amid much controversy, the Town of Rogersville agreed to take legal title to the Inn for a period of twenty (20) years. According to attorney Phillips, “RHA [Heritage Association of Rogersville] remains the holder of the equitable title to the Inn, and they remain responsible for payment of the mortgage and insurance etc; much the same as a homeowner who has mortgaged a residence and has transferred legal title to a trustee on a trust deed.” There is a written operation agreement and a trust conveyance agreement between the Town of Rogersville and the RHA, which is available to the public upon request.
Many claim, however, this move was a last-minute play to wrest control of the project from Elder or a way for the Town to gain eventual ownership of the property. While I can’t speak as to the ultimate intent of the Town leaders, I can say the grant requirements aren’t part of their nefarious plot. The guidelines clearly state: “all applications must be submitted by local governments (cities or counties), commissions established by local governments, or other state agencies. Local governments may work with other public agencies or private organizations, but the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) will only contract with a local government, local commission or state agency.” The requirement, a federal one, wasn’t something Town leaders quickly slapped into place. It’s just a fact: RHA does not qualify for those monies.
In August of 2005, a mere month after the Town of Rogersville, accepted the task of renovation and as plans were being drawn: Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, causing an estimated 165.2 billion dollars worth of damage and claiming 1,836 lives.
From then until now, the Inn project has been a series of delays and setbacks. The renovation plans and their approval by the state fire marshal, which is required before the project can be placed up for bid, took nearly ten months. Within that period of time, Elder resigned her post as director, leaving the project in the hands of the Heritage Association Board of Directors and newly appointed replacement, Patricia Humbert. In August of 06′, when bids were opened, the lowest exceeded grant funding by one million dollars. The steep rise in fuel and construction costs, which came as a result of the annihilation of the Gulf coast by Katrina and ongoing $379 billion dollar war in Iraq, meant the price of the project would vastly exceed the originally estimated costs. In a determined effort to move the project forward, however, the BMA granted tentative approval to bid submitted by Armstrong Construction and went back to the drawing board – literally. The town requested that the renovation plans be reworked into manageable phases with opening of the ground floor restaurant to take priority. Last month (January 2007) while the Town was still awaiting those revisions from architect Michael Emrick (who according to town leaders was taking his slow sweet time) Armstrong Construction officially withdrew their bid a mere two weeks before it would have expired.
The highly anticipated start of the project was delayed once more.
Regrettably, this series of difficulties and delays has resulted in a fair amount of skepticism, overall project disapproval and even a few conspiracy theories. The fact that the Town agreed to invest, from the city budget, $186,593 in matching funds as required under the terms of the grant has also led to outrage and claims of corruption, mismanagement and/or misuse of tax funds. Others say the project is just cursed.
Still, the leaders push on. They’ve already partnered with the First Tennessee Development District to explore additional funding options. Following certification of completion on Phase I of the Inn, the town could apply for additional TEA-21 Enhancement funds. This, however, would require another grant match from town coffers, which isn’t going to go over well taxpayers, who are already leery of the whole mess.
I think, however, if the project is managed effectively (and that’s a big if) and there are no unforeseen problems, the benefits could outweigh the final price tag. Oh, I could care less about the “history” of the place and am not impressed that a President occupied the Inn, much less three, but I do realize that making use of the city’s historic structures is a good development strategy. It brings back a vacant building as tax-generating assets, adds value to nearby existing investments of both the public and private sector, builds upon existing public infrastructure, and adds character and appeal to the business district, thereby (all hope) attracting visitors and their expendable incomes. I think Ms. Elder should be applauded for taking the initiative: Givens, Williams and Harrison for their efforts to secure the funding at the state level, and the BMA for their willingness to tackle such an extensive project.
The project, however, may prove a bit too extensive for the public to get behind – and this will ultimately cause problems.