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The Airpark Inn may be on the road to ruins. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is considering the possibility of demolishing the inn at Reelfoot Lake State Park. Officials believe it will take more money to rehabilitate the inn than it would to remove it. The state plans to erect a fence to block access to the closed facility.

The Airpark Inn is probably closed forever.

The landmark structure in Reelfoot Lake State Park shut its doors in November. A fire had destroyed six of the inn's 20 rooms.

A January ice storm complicated matters. The inn was without electricity or heat for nearly two weeks. Water pipes froze and burst. The inn's water supply was cut off and remains off. The inn's remaining rooms can't be reopened until the water lines - and several other problems - are fixed.

Instead of repairing the inn, the state may demolish it.

The inn, which was built on piers over Reelfoot Lake in the early 1970s, won a number of architectural awards. Now, it is considered too dilapidated for repairs.

The concrete foundation/platform on which the entire facility is constructed (including walkways and structures) is significantly degraded, said Meg Lockhart, deputy communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Engineering reports completed before the fire indicated the repairs would be far too expensive because of environmental requirements, the inn's unique design and location, and the nature of the existing structure itself.

"So," Lockhart stated in an e-mail to the State Gazette on Tuesday afternoon, "renovating the Airpark Inn is not a practical option. Again, there are structural deficiencies (primarily in the concrete decking/walkways and the guardrails) that we consider to be unsafe and not financially feasible to repair."

Funds previously budgeted to replace the concrete decking and walkways are no longer available. Funded capital projects that had been in place were canceled as of July 1 as a result of state budget reductions, Lockhart explained.

With no funds to repair the inn, it will remain closed. Lockhart said the current budget includes funding to fence off the inn's entryway to block access to the site.

"There has been some discussion to potentially demolish the Airpark Inn and re-develop rental units on the south side of the lake," Lockhart reported. "However, we do not have the budget at this time."

(Lockhart said the state is eyeing the lake's southern end because that is where most of the park operations are located, including the visitor center and, now, the park offices. Park officials also believe the lake's southern shores would be more convenient to activities in the local community. The southern shore is the lake's most commercial sector. The Airpark area is fairly remote and nature oriented.)

Park Manager Jimmy Cox said removing the inn is probably not as expensive as upgrading and repairing it. The concrete decking and the broken water pipes aren't the only problems. Cox said the inn has significant sewage and electrical issues, too.

In fact, Lockhart said, fire investigators believe the origin of the Nov. 20 fire was electric - most likely a refrigerator cord in one of the cabin units. Debris from the fire has been removed and all that remains of the burned cluster of rooms is the platform upon which they were constructed.

Cox said the inn's potential destruction is "heartbreaking to an extent." He's been with Reelfoot Lake State Park long enough to remember the Airpark Inn's official opening in March 1973. It was a nature lover's paradise. Large windows in each room allowed guests to watch a variety of birds and other critters frolicking and feeding outside. Cox said he remembers days when the park set scopes on the pier and people watched bald eagles all day long. One February day he counted a thousand people walking out to the end of the pier to catch a glimpse of the majestic eagles.

Cox also remembers the lows - such as the day a former governor decided to close the Airpark Inn and other state park facilities in a political wrangle. The Airpark Inn was the last state park to reopen in Tennessee.

"I have a history with it," Cox said. "Because of my history with it I do hate to see it closed. But, at the same time, it is difficult to try to deal with it with all the tings that need to be done. A lot of maintenance issues need to be addressed."

He blamed the Airpark Inn's demise on a lack of maintenance - or rather the lack of money to do maintenance. "That's pretty much a problem with any and all state parks," he said. "There's never enough maintenance money to do everything that needs to be done."

Reelfoot Lake State Park was establish about 1956 with its first plot of land in the Blue Bank area on Reelfoot's southern shore. The park expanded with the purchase of the area now occupied by the visitors center and Ellington Hall; the Keystone area; the spillway area (which has a small motel); the old Kiwanis Park area; the Airpark area; and finally Kirby Pocket. Cox estimated that the Airpark area was purchased in the early 1970s.

In addition to the Airpark Inn, the state park's northernmost segment features a campground, swimming pool, tennis court, picnic pavilion, hiking trail, boat ramp and fish-cleaning station. It is adjacent to the Reelfoot Lake Airport at the end of Highway 213 in Lake County.

The swimming pool is not open this year. The state plans to fill the existing pool for safety reasons.

Cox said laws governing swimming pools have changed. One of those changes deals with pool drains and the possibility that people may get trapped in the drain. "I'm sure we don't meet" the new regulations, he said.

The boat ramp, however, is scheduled for improvements this year. Cox said the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency plans to improve the Airpark, Gray's Camp and Champey Pocket boat ramps later this year.

Tennessee State Parks, in coordination with TWRA, have also applied for a permit to make improvements to the Kirby Pocket boat ramp, Cox said.

The Dyersburg State Gazette