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City of Gatlinburg hires contractor for wildfire memorial, still needs to establish start date

TDOT said it concurred with using Whaley Construction as the contractor to build the memorial, at around $919,300.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Almost six years later, city and county leaders are close to starting construction on a memorial honoring the victims and survivors of the 2016 Sevier County wildfires. It was initially scheduled to be completed in 2019.

According to a spokesperson with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the contract to build the memorial went out to bid in late June. On July 10, it was submitted for their concurrence and it was approved.

In that concurrence, TDOT said that Gatlinburg and Sevier County went with Whaley Construction in a contract of $919,363 as the lowest responsive bidder. The company is located in Kodak and has worked on projects for Hardin Valley Apartments and a project at Hardin Valley Middle School.

Most recently, Whaley construction completed a contract with the city of Gatlinburg in paving new sidewalks through Mynatt Park.

"We poured around 35,000 square-feet of sidewalks, installed handrails, and new lighting," said Colton Madison, the Vice President of Concrete and the future project manager for the memorial.

He said he remembers the company watching the 2016 wildfires scorch the city. 

"We do remember it very well," Madison said.

He said it's a big reason they decided to bid on the project.

"It makes us proud to honor the survivors, first responders and the people that died," Madison said. "So, it means a lot to us that we got a hand in it to bring some joy to people now."

Next, Gatlinburg leaders need to schedule a pre-construction meeting and make sure representatives from TDOT will be present. They will also need to establish a start date with the contractor for when construction would officially begin.

TDOT previously offered a grant to help pay for some of the memorial, funded through a federal aid transportation program. It covers pedestrian access improvements surrounding the site, but does not cover the memorial itself.

In addition to the TDOT funding, Sevier County and Gatlinburg leaders previously said they would pay around $333,450 to build the memorial. 

The project faced several years of delays. In August 2019, the original downtown Gatlinburg site where they planned to build it was damaged by heavy rains. They moved it to Mynatt Park in September and said TDOT gave them a grant of around $852,300 to cover some of the costs.

With the bid on the table, Madison said Whaley could begin construction on the project as soon as it's approved by Gatlinburg City Commission on September 13. 

"It will take about four months to complete," Madison said. "We anticipate starting in September, which would mean a January finish date."

At the time, Gatlinburg and Sevier County said the design phase would finish in November 2020 and construction would end in December 2021. But the COVID-19 pandemic prompted several delays in the grant process, according to reports.

They received a notice from the state to proceed with the design in early September 2021 and had until summer 2022 to get federal approval on the designs before they lost funding.

Funds were committed in May 2022, according to TDOT — just before the deadline.

"We're just really lucky to have a hand in it," Madison said.

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. 

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