Union City Tennessee’s Discovery Park is flanked by two harvest-ready corn fields near a road bed that promises to be Interstate 69. A 100-thousand-square-foot ultra-modern exhibit space anchors the park. At least 15 other buildings are on the park grounds including a working grist mill, train depot and restored century old chapel.
Inside the main building you’re greeted by a stuffed snarling grizzly bear perched on his hind legs. The activities inside range from a starship theater and expanding universe exhibit
To an earthquake simulator that replicates the tremors of the famed 1812 New Madrid Earthquake that made the Mississippi river appear it was running backwards.
Discovery Park is not a science center or amusement park.
“We don’t call it a museum, its history education entertainment,” said Discovery Park Executive director Jim Rippy who said for a while he didn’t know exactly it was that he was working on.
“I’ve been trying to tell people what this is, but some people from the Wal-Mart foundation gave me this analogy, you’re like a mini Smithsonian,” said Rippy. “In this building we have the nine basics of the Smithsonian that’s one way you can look at it”
Marketing this “mini-Smithsonian” is Rippy’s chief challenge. Along with traditional advertising Rippy has employed recruiters to visit area schools within a three hour drive to book field trips.
“And with that we give them a lesson plan. They don’t just bring the kids and turn them out. The kids get about an hour and half or two hours on whatever subject, if it’s Native American, if it’s geology, faith whatever,” said Rippy.
Robert E. Kirkland’s $100m investment in the park is intended to enhance educational opportunities for children in surrounding rural towns and to expand Union City’s economy.
Rippy expects the park to draw an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 visitors each year. Union City’s population is just over 10,000 and home to a handful of hotels and a few more restaurants.
“We still have a lot of work to do we need a place for these people that are coming in to visit to stay,” said Lindsey Frilling, Economic Development Director for Obion County and Union City. “We need our community to really ramp up their customer service skills, (be)cause, it’s not just about the time they spend, here at Discovery park it’s about the experience they have when they are here in our community.“
Just a short drive from the Discovery Park inside the Penny Hill Shoppe David Fowler is eating a late lunch
and says not everyone in the community thinks the park can do its part to boost the community’s economy.
“There are a lot of skeptics, there are a lot of people that think something like that won’t go over here that he’s just wasted his money, “said Fowler. “But I think most people are anticipating it being open.”
Kirkland, who’s bankrolling the park, says it is meant to allow visitors to “see beyond” their current way of life. And, while he acknowledges he could have spent his 100 million dollars in other ways to help the community, he has a few words for his skeptics.
“I’d say look this is my money, I made it I can spend it like I want to and what have you done to improve your community and I challenge you to do as much for your community in your own way however you like,” said Kirkland.
Even if the attraction doesn’t break even, it’s not in danger of closing. Kirkland has endowed the facility with operational money for at least the next 20 years.
Here is the story aired on NPR about the opening of the Discovery Park.