Employees concerned about the security of their jobs and community members worried that changes could lead to a drop in tourism were among those who attended an open house Thursday evening to solicit public comment on planned improvements at Mammoth Cave Hotel.

The $3.4 million plan involves updating old electrical and HVAC systems, renovating the hotel lodge and Sunset Terrace Lodge and demolishing the Heritage Trail wing of the hotel. The demolition of the wing, which has 38 rooms, would leave the hotel with 54 lodging units. 

The demolition of the Heritage Trail wing, planned for 2016, emerged as a major point of concern for a number of people at the open house.

B.J. McGaha of Glasgow works in the kitchen at Mammoth Cave Hotel and said a lot of park visitors want to stay at the hotel – not somewhere off-site.

“If people can’t stay here, they may not come back,” he said.

If tourists aren’t drawn to the park, McGaha said he’s worried about his job security.

Mark Dodson of Edmonson County has been a custodian at the hotel for 22 years. He said most guests he encounters want to stay in the Heritage Trail wing, which is next to the main Hotel Lodge.

Many rooms in that wing back onto an overlook with an attractive view, Dodson said.

Fewer rooms will mean fewer guests at the hotel, the dining room and the gift shop, he said.

Demolishing the wing could negatively affect cities surrounding the park if there are fewer tourists traveling through areas, such as Cave City, Dodson said.

“It’s gonna put a monkey wrench in everything,” he said.

Charles A. Leachman of Bowling Green is a former employee of the hotel who started work as a waiter there in 1963.

“At the time, Mammoth Cave was really buzzing,” he said.

Leachman said that in his early years at the park, it didn’t seem to have a down season.

He said he remembers a downturn in business, though, when an older hotel building at the park was demolished because it was deemed a fire hazard.

Leachman said he doesn’t like the idea of the Heritage Trail wing being demolished without anything being done to replace those rooms. 

It could be a step toward losing jobs at the park, he said.

The cave is an asset for the state, Leachman said.

“If somebody doesn’t stand up for Mammoth Cave, it’s not going to get any better,” he said.

Johnny Lewis, maintenance supervisor at the hotel, said he’s not sure how the hotel will operate if the Heritage Trail wing is demolished and the rooms are not replaced.

“I hate to see it torn down,” he said.

Though the hotel will still have 54 rooms available to rent for part of the year, Lewis said the cabins and cottages that make up some of those rooms are winterized and won’t be available during the colder season.

“I’ve been winterizing those for 16 years,” he said.

Greg Davis, manager of the hotel, said he’s skeptical about whether the hotel will be profitable to run without the 38 rooms of the Heritage Trail wing.

“I don’t see how it’s going to be viable,” Davis said.

He estimates that those rooms – including the money that  individuals in those rooms spend on things such a food – account for about 1/5 of the hotel revenue.

Davis said that when some rooms have to be winterized and the Heritage Trail wing rooms are gone, the hotel will have only 34 rooms available year-round.

Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead said that the idea of making improvements at the Mammoth Cave Hotel arose because the 10-year contract for the concessionaire that runs the hotel ran out about 10 years ago and since then has been renewed on a yearly basis.

Operating in that manner isn’t good for the park or for the concessionaire, but improvements were needed at the hotel before a new 10-year contract can be established, she said.

Money for the improvements is coming both from park fees and from a government grant, Craighead said.

When developing a plan for improvements, an independent consultant looked at the businesses, she said. The consultant showed that the hotel had an about 50 percent occupancy rate.

“It doesn’t make sense to have that many rooms,” Craighead said.

The Heritage Trail wing was built in the 1960s, and the rooms are small compared to modern standards, she said.

Making improvements to the wing would also be difficult and expensive because of the way it was constructed, Craighead said. Needed improvements could cost between $2 million and $3 million.

Because the hotel occupancy rates are so low, the hotel wouldn’t make the money back that it would need to spend in such a renovation, she said.

Projections from the independent consultant show that the plan being proposed is viable without the Heritage Trail wing, Craighead said.

“We have to operate like a business,” she said. “This is a business model.”

The park needs plan approval from the regional office in Atlanta and a development advisory board in Washington D.C., Craighead said.

 – Follow government beat writer Katie Brandenburg on Twitter at twitter.com/BGDNgovtbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

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