Sullivan County's Observation Knob Park on South Holston Lake is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts in Sullivan County and the surrounding areas. It offers a range of outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, and fishing. However, the park's future is in question following a recent proposal by the Sullivan County Commission to terminate the county's lease with the Tennessee Valley Authority for the park's land.
Sullivan County signed a 50-year lease with TVA to use the land in July 1975. During a budget hearing before the county's Administrative Committee, Commissioner Jessica Means motioned to "pull funding for the park" from the budget, citing concerns over the park's viability going forward due to needed electrical upgrades estimated to cost anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000. Members of the committee also cited potential risks to park visitors due to electrical problems.
The park has been operated by Sullivan County under the TVA lease. If the county intends to cease the park's operation, the full commission must approve a resolution to terminate the TVA lease.
Park Director Chris Ihrke told the committee that bids for electrical repairs needed immediately to resolve issues cited in a recent inspection were available and that the work could be done for $18,000. However, committee members believed this would only be a "Band-Aid" for a larger problem and expressed concern over the park's safety.
Mayor Richard Venable, who has sole decision-making authority over park operations, said that large-scale electrical work is a long-term effort that could be completed in phases over as many as five years. He also noted that recent changes to the park's operation, such as rent increases and switching more seasonal sites to daily use, were designed to increase revenue to help defray the costs of that work.
While the park has produced enough revenue in the last two years to pay for itself and is budgeted again this year, its historical performance has been mostly break-even or lost. The past two years have shown a combined positive cash flow of about $100,000.
Members of the Administrative Committee said they do not believe the park is viable going forward due to needed electrical upgrades, estimated to cost anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000. Members also cited concerns over the potential risk to park visitors due to electrical problems.
Last month, Mayor Venable sent a letter to the occupants of 178 seasonal sites notifying them that they must vacate the park by March 15. That notice also stated that 88 seasonal spots would be available through a public lottery for the 2023 season.
Venable spoke with a TVA representative to determine the options available to the commission to terminate the lease, called an easement by TVA. "We did discuss the park cleanup that would be necessary," Venable said. "And if TVA chooses to go through a request for proposal process to find a new operator for the park and campground, that could take most of the summer. So, the park may not be available at all this season."
The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet for its monthly work session on Thursday, March 10th, to consider the proposed resolution. A decision on the resolution could take place when the commission meets in regular session on Thursday, March 16th.
The fate of Sullivan County's Observation Knob Park remains uncertain. While the park has been a popular recreational spot for outdoor enthusiasts, its viability going forward is in question due to the necessary electrical upgrades and potential risks to park visitors. The Sullivan County Commission's decision on the proposed resolution will have a significant impact on the park's future.
County residents have voiced concerns about the number of seemingly permanent park residents, with the erection of stoops and decks around campers to make them into summer homes. Those opposing these activities say it makes the facility look like a trailer park instead of a campground, citing the pristine conditions in the nearby state parks of Tennessee and Virginia.
There is no clear solution, although TVA is expected to look for another park operator should the county vote to terminate its easement on South Holston Lake. Some question if the TVA would approach the State of Tennessee about taking over operations and feeding the property to the state.
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