UNION CITY, Tenn. — The gleaming white building with curved exteriors and a spaceship-like tower emerges from the flat landscape of West Tennessee like something out of science fiction, but it’s not a villain’s lair or superhero’s headquarters.
It’s Discovery Park of America, a new museum, education center and tourist attraction opening Friday in Union City, Tenn., a town of 11,000 a few hours’ drive from Memphis, Nashville and St. Louis.
With exhibits about natural and regional history, dinosaurs, Native Americans, energy, transportation, science, the military and space flight, the museum can be described as a mini-Smithsonian Institution.
There’s an earthquake simulator, a 120-foot glass-encased observation tower and a 50-foot metal replica of the human body that includes a 32-foot slide.
The 50-acre complex also boasts an old train depot, a century-old church and flower gardens, plus enough land for outdoor events and future expansion.
Union City resident Robert Kirkland, who built a fortune with a chain of home decor stores and smart investments, shelled out $80 million to build the museum.
Kirkland plans to keep the exhibits fresh and unique with a $3 million annual investment.
Museum operators and local officials are hoping Discovery Park will attract visitors who live within a three-hour drive and bolster the economy in a region of rural America hit hard by job losses, floods, droughts and a tough economy. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said the state plans to include Discovery Park in tourism marketing efforts.
High hopes are pinned to the project, but questions remain as to whether Union City will be able to lure hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses to make it a complete travel experience.
“Northwest Tennessee needs a venue,” said Discovery Park of America CEO Jim Rippy. “East Tennessee’s got Dollywood. Nashville’s got the music, Memphis has got the music. What we’re trying to do is develop an educational vacation, a place for children and families.”
Discovery Park of America is actually built on a cornfield. It sits near Interstate 55, U.S. Highway 51 and the unfinished Interstate 69 corridor.
It’s also near an old Goodyear tire plant, which closed in July 2011, taking 1,800 jobs with it. The lost jobs hurt the area’s economy and residents’ morale, but the future may be getting brighter. Office chair maker 9to5 Seating recently announced it’s moving manufacturing operations from China to Union City, adding about 500 jobs.
Locals hope Discovery Park makes the region more attractive to businesses.
“It is by far the most significant attraction ever developed in our area,” said West Tennessee resident Deborah Shaw Laman, vice president of Brooks Shaw & Son Old Country Store at the Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tenn.
When visitors arrive at Discovery Park, they are greeted by a wide parking lot and a sidewalks leading into the Discovery Center. Tickets cost under $15 pre-tax for single day passes for adults, children and seniors. Two-day passes are less than $20.
Once inside, visitors go down an elevator or escalator to a brightly-lit, three-level atrium. The escalator itself is a learning experience; its mechanism is encased in glass so visitors can see how it works.
Dinosaur skeletons are set up in the atrium room. There are exhibits with Native American artifacts and a room filled with classic and historic cars, including a limousine owned by the early 20th century comedian W.C. Fields.
The military section showcases items from the Civil War and the two World Wars. A large hall has a Stearman PT-17 biplane suspended in the air, a tribute to military pilots trained at a nearby airfield.
Other exhibits have regional ties, such as a 20,000-gallon aquarium featuring living creatures from nearby Reelfoot Lake.
Visitors who toured Discovery Park before its opening commented on the attention to detail. Handwriting can still be seen in soldiers’ Civil War journals, and concise descriptions accompany exhibits of old record players and photo equipment, like a Brownie Target Six-20 Box Camera.
One intriguing feature is a theater that simulates the violent 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes, which re-formed the region’s topography.
A children’s section includes the “Crawlers Cove” for infants and the “Fantasy Forrest” for toddlers. There are plans to have concerts and other special events on the property.
The idea for a commercial-tourism project in Union City was born 10 years ago, when Rippy was the area’s economic development chief. The plan called for shopping centers, a racetrack and water parks, but it never happened.
Enter Kirkland, who worked with Rippy to develop the Discovery Park concept. As time passed, the plans became more ambitious and expensive.
“This is one of those things that made me feel like I had a ball of molasses that I couldn’t get unstuck from,” Kirkland joked. “It started out much lower (in cost).”
For Kirkland, Discovery Park is, first and foremost, an educational venue. Any tourist dollars are a welcomed bonus, he said.
“Surely, if they can get a few folks going down south and get them to see an alligator farm in Florida, we can get them to see” Discovery Park, Kirkland said.
With the museum ready to open, attention has turned to luring more hotels and restaurants. Right now, Union City has a few run-of-the-mill hotels and some fast food and chain restaurants.
“We still have a lot of work to do. We need hotels,” said Lindsay Frilling, a member of the Obion County Joint Economic Development Council. “We need our community to really ramp up their customer service skills and welcome people to make them want to come back.”
Rippy wants to invite school children on field trips, travelers on bus tours and companies with their business meetings — anyone who can generate word-of-mouth advertising.
Research firm Younger and Associates has projected Discovery Park can expect around 150,000 visitors a year.