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Five years later, memorial to Gatlinburg wildfire victims hasn't broken ground

The latest update had the project set to be completed by the end of 2021, but no progress has been made at its planned location in a Gatlinburg park.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Five years after the inferno, construction on a memorial honoring the victims and survivors of the 2016 Sevier County wildfires has yet to begin — more than two years after it was initially scheduled to be completed. 

A city of Gatlinburg spokesperson said bureaucratic review as part of a state grant process is responsible for the delay and construction is now not expected to start until spring 2022.

Fourteen people died in the November 2016 fires, which also destroyed more than 2,000 structures and displaced hundreds of people. The project was to honor the emergency workers who responded to help and memorialize the victims, according to a 2019 press release. 

"In the history of Gatlinburg, this is a major event," said Pastor Roger Comstock, whose Gatlinburg Church of Christ was destroyed. "If nothing else than for the 14 people and their families, the ones who died, I think something ought to be done."

The memorial project has faced setbacks both natural and bureaucratic, a review shows.

RELATED: Confirmed victims of Smoky Mountain wildfires

Heavy rains in August 2019 damaged the downtown Gatlinburg site where local leaders initially planned to build.

By September 2019, however, leaders selected Gatlinburg's Mynatt Park as a new location and said the Tennessee Department of Transportation had awarded them an $852,293 grant to cover most of the costs of the million-dollar project. 

At the time, Gatlinburg and Sevier County officials said the project's design phase would finish around November 2020, with construction wrapping up by December 2021.

Last week, city of Gatlinburg spokesperson Seth Butler said the city hopes to unveil new renderings of the memorial before the fifth anniversary of the wildfire on Nov. 28. 

Construction on the project would likely not start for several months after that, he said.

"Five years is a long time to plan," Comstock said. "His congregation finished rebuilding their church two years ago. You know, the wheels of government turn very slowly."

Both Butler and Sevier County spokesperson Perrin Anderson blamed a state review by TDOT for the delay. 

"The pace of the project has largely been determined by TDOT. We are following TDOT’s grant process," Anderson said in a statement.

"None of the entities involved desired or anticipated the delays that have occurred with the grant process, which were due to various circumstances, including the impact of COVID-19," Butler said. "All entities involved are fully committed to moving the project forward."

TDOT spokesperson Mark Nagi said the state issued a notice to proceed with design in early Sept. 2021, but the designs were still awaiting right-of-way approval from the department's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) office. 

Other memorials have taken less time. The East Tennessee Veteran's Memorial in Knoxville's World's Fair Park used both federal and state funds — though not from TDOT. Mike Crawford, who oversaw the construction phase of that project, said it took a year from securing funding for workers to break ground. 

Nagi said Wednesday that it "routinely" takes three years for local agencies to obtain the necessary clearances from TDOT. After the state department signs off, he said the local agency still must receive federal approval by summer 2022 or risk losing funding.

In addition to the TDOT funding, Butler said Sevier County and Gatlinburg will pay $333,450.25 to build the memorial. Initially, the county and city chamber of commerce solicited public donations for the memorial through a public fund administered at local SmartBank locations. 

Butler said no one donated to the memorial fund account and it was closed more than a year ago.