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Air Park Inn fire probe continuing

Air Park Inn fire probe continuing

Posted: Tuesday, December 9, 2008 10:05 pm
By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter

 By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter A fire that destroyed a cluster of six rooms at Air Park Inn at Reelfoot Lake Nov. 20 is still under investigation, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. “Initial findings lean toward the cause being electrical in origin,” said Meg Lockhart, TDEC public information officer. The inn was closed as a result of the fire. Whether it will ever reopen remains to be seen. Ms. Lockhart gave a synopsis of the fire. “A fire alarm sounded around 6 that evening,” she said. “Both a park ranger and the local sheriff’s office investigated the site but found no fire. The alarm was reset and went off again at about 7:30 p.m., at which point the site was clearly on fire.” Four local volunteer fire departments responded to the fire — from Samburg, Ridgely, Hornbeak and Tiptonville. “The site was then secured so that no unauthorized personnel would have access,” Ms. Lockhart said of the site, which was thought to be under control. However, at 7:15 a.m. the next day, heavy smoke was emanating from the burn site and occasional flames flickered upwards. No one injured Air Park Inn, a part of Reelfoot Lake State Park, is located on the west shore of Reelfoot Lake. Built in the 1960s at a cost of $750,000, it contains a restaurant facility, an office complex, meeting rooms and 20 single rooms and suites. Close to the inn is a short runway to accommodate light aircraft. The cluster that burned Nov. 20 contained four rooms and two suites. None were occupied at the time of the fire. Only two guests were registered elsewhere in the inn and they were moved the next day to state-owned motel units near the spillway. Uncertain future Mike Carlton, TDEC assistant commissioner and director of Tennessee State Parks, said the burned-out portion must be demolished and cleaned up. After that, the department will make a decision about the inn’s future. “We won’t know what the fire did to the infrastructure (of the inn facility) until we get the debris cleaned off it,” he said. “Our facility maintenance folks met last week with some people from Division of Water Pollution Control. The inn is built over a wetland. We want to make sure we haven’t violated any permits or that kind of thing. “There are still some walls standing and a lot of debris that’s falling off into the lake and floating around. “We have an engineering firm that’s under state contract. Their job is to come back to us with a proposal and a cost so that at least the cleanup will get us to a place where we can make a more informed decision on what the future of that (inn) is.” No info Ms. Lockhart said because so much time has elapsed since the inn was built, the department does not have information regarding construction costs and funding sources. “The entire facility is constructed on an elevated concrete pier/platform over the water along the shoreline,” she said. “Due to budget cuts during the previous administration, it was closed in October 2001 and reopened by the current administration in January 2004. The inn operates on appropriated funds, as the revenue generated does not fully cover operating costs.” She said the concrete platform, or “pier,” on which the facility is constructed, “including walkways and structures,” is significantly degraded. “Decisions on how to best address the fundamental foundation and infrastructure needs at the inn are under consideration,” she said. “But engineering reports received prior to the fire address needs that could be cost prohibitive due to various obstacles.” Those obstacles include environmental requirements, the unique design and location of the place and the “nature of the existing structure,” meaning its condition. Therefore, she said, TDEC has been hesitant to expend maintenance money except for required needs, “due to the pending capital projects.” Needs repairs After a run of 30-plus years and thousands of visitors, it’s a foregone conclusion the Air Park Inn facility would need a facelift. Apparently, the Bredesen administration recognized the need as it funded two capital projects for the facility — one for $1.7 million in 2004 and one for $2 million in 2007 — but neither one went further than the drawing board. “When this administration took over, the inn was closed,” Carlton said. “We went in (and reopened it), thinking, ‘We’ll give it a shot, see how it works.’ But there were clearly needs. So we identified a capital project to help with the renovation. We hired an engineer. The engineer went in and looked at it and came back and said, ‘You didn’t budget enough money.’ So we went back for a second round of funding and got more money. “Now we have a more recent engineering report that says, ‘You barely have enough money to fix the decking.’” Case in point: Metal plates. “There are some metal plates on the concrete deck. Everywhere there’s a metal plate, a soft place has developed in the concrete,” Carlton said. “Because (the structure) is built over a wetland, the cost of repairing the decking would have to include (the cost of) a helicopter. You can’t just drop a bulldozer or TracHoe on something like that. They’d have to do it by helicopter. “Construction is pretty expensive on that (inn). So more recently, we asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to go back and get even more money in times of economic downturn?’” “We can’t. There is no money,” Ms. Lockhart said. “What we were hoping to do was make some of the cabins handicapped-accessible,” Carlton added. “Also, the carpeting in the rooms is very old and the windows are, too. It just needed a good facelift.” Is TDEC going to ask for more money for the air park inn projects? Or will it, as Carlton says, start looking at “other options”? “Right now, we’re still not sure what we’re going to do. All you have to do is watch the news and know that basically all our spending has come to a screeching halt,” he said. “Our hope was that we would come up with a prudent decision. The first engineer told us, ‘You don’t have enough money.’ The second engineer was charged with, ‘Can you come up with an alternative to this concrete platform that’s in place?’ They’ve all come back to us and said, ‘There’s no way to change that without sinking a lot of money in it.’ Carlton said Reelfoot Lake is a unique part of Tennessee State Parks and TDEC did not want to pull away from it cold-turkey. “We wanted to think through the process. Then the economy thing happened,” he said. “There are some options that we would consider. But right now, the way the capital project is written, it’s for repair work at Air Park Inn. “Whatever it is that we might decide, even if the funding were released, we would have to go back to the State Building Commission and tell them, ‘This is another way we would rather use that money.’ And they would have to approve it. “The money ($3.7 million) still exists with the state, but it is absolutely unavailable to us right now.” Shut down “Air Park Inn is a great place to go out on the piers and look at the eagles, but until we get it cleaned up, we are not going to allow people back there because of safety hazards caused by the fire,” Carlton said. “Also, we are going to start calling guests who have pre-registered and tell them what has happened. We don’t know what the future holds, but they at least deserve to know (there’s been a fire).” Published in The Messenger 12.09.08

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