By GLENDA H. CAUDLE
‘DISCOVERY’ING THE FUTURE — Celebrating the exciting news that the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation is pledging millions of dollars to build and maintain Discovery Park of America in Union City are (from left) Jim Rippy of the Obion County
Special Features Editor
Millions of dollars.
That’s what Obion County will be receiving from a local foundation intent on putting the finishing touches on an extraordinary delivery system that will guarantee children from this area the opportunity to become well-educated and productive adults while enjoying themselves immensely.
That’s what will entice tourists to head for this agrarian pocket of civilization, where they can experience a remarkable and mind-expanding vacation.
That’s what will attract the notice of business and industry looking for a combination of educated work force and quality of life advantages.
That’s what the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation is pledging in Discovery Park of America, the name selected for a project they envision as benefiting not only their own community but other small towns and rural counties across the nation that are willing — first — to reach deep and — then — to reach out to benefit their citizens.
If amazing things can be done in Obion County, the Kirklands believe, they can be done anywhere people have the will to make them happen.
With a world-class museum as its centerpiece, Discovery Park will also include outdoor displays and gardens. The foundation’s supporters envision, too, a first-class tourism center tied to the emergence of I-69 and the transportation corridor leading from Canada to Mexico through the nation’s heartland, plus a convention and conference center that will be the envy of metropolitan areas.
The foundation has underwritten $20 million to purchase land, secure an architect of internationally proven stature and build the centerpiece of the 50-acre learning adventure that will be situated on Everett Boulevard in Union City. A contract was signed recently and the sale of property known as Graham Acres LLC and belonging to the Hardy Graham family will be closed in January 2008. The location is on the west side of Everett Boulevard across the highway from Union City Second Baptist Church.
A contract with internationally-renowned Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, whose previous efforts include the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Quebec and, in Western Canada, the Edmonton Space and Sciences Centre, the Government Services Centre in Ponoka and St. Albert Place, was signed Monday.
Another $20 million, at the rate of $1 million per year, is being donated through the foundation for purchasing artifacts and renting stellar exhibits. Yet another $20 million — again at the rate of $1 million per year, is being pledged toward keeping the project solvent for at least the first 20 years of its existence.
A final gift will be provided through the foundation at the rate of $300,000 for 20 years. This amount is to be used only for investment purposes during this time. With a business eye for the project, the Kirklands believe this gift should amount to approximately $14 million by the end of the investment period, and this nest egg should endow the project beyond the initial 20-year period.
An additional source of income in the amount of $40 million is possible from a unique financing arrangement involving the purchase of life insurance policies in the amount of $1 million each for 40 individuals.
“These funds would be raised with a 50-year view toward expansion of Discovery Park. It is our dream to see it grow even larger than the concept we are now considering and we want the design to be expandable without destroying the architectural uniqueness of the structure we trust Mr. Cardinal to create for the project,” Robert Kirklands says.
There’s a role for local, state and federal governments to assume as well, if they are willing, and for additional investors — upping the ante to more than $100 million before the project is completed.
“Union City needs to take advantage of I-69. It’s the last great hope of the city to stay on the map and make it grow. The best industry we can get is the tourist industry — it is non-polluting, it is a source of sales tax income and it attracts other industries that benefit from the tourist trade,” says Kirkland. “We already have a concert series (Community Concert), a community theater (Masquerade Theatre) and a good educational system (the newly-established Union City College Preparatory Magnet School and its attendant elevated educational levels in the lower grades). If education and culture mean anything to a company seeking a location — they need to look at what we offer here.”
To be included
Called into existence as a “celebration of life,” Discovery Park of America will aim to improve the understanding of other forms of life — past, present and future. The museum will take the lead in celebrating the progression of art, nature and mankind.
The boost to the area’s economy through a greatly-enhanced emphasis on tourism and the educational possibilities for area children — and adults —is guaranteed to focus attention on this northwest Tennessee community from across the land.
The museum’s board is already hard at work imagining concepts such as displays that will highlight regional history like Reelfoot Lake. Such a center might well include an earthquake simulator so that guests may experience (in complete safety, but with startling clarity) the physical sensations the area’s early-19th Century inhabitants came too know only too well during the weeks the area moved in rhythm with shifting tectonic plates.
An aquarium with an emphasis on native fish and an adjoining section featuring regional maps and 3-D topographical models will be included.
In the museum’s Congressional Forum, the papers and records of Congressman Robert A. “Fats” Everett, plus documents and items gleaned from the life of Davy Crockett and other U.S. representatives and senators with a connection to this area and the Volunteer State, will offer a rich source of research material and will bring the lives and times of these prominent figures into a clear perspective. Memorabilia provided by local Congressman John S. Tanner will have their place as well.
An interactive section’s focus will be on alternative energy sources. Exhibits to be connected to working models — most likely contained in an outdoors section — will include wind, solar, water, hydrogen and atomic power.
Fossils, gems, bones and rocks will offer a playground for the inquiring mind in the natural history section and Native American artifacts that recall the community’s earliest settlers and their contributions will be showcased in exhibits allowing guests to examine pottery, shards, stones and artifacts dating back 12,000-15,000 years.
As Obion County moves to take advantage of expanded transportation concepts, the museum’s focus on mechanized movement for basic transportation and trade through trains, aircraft, automobiles and watercraft should prove a true “natural” attraction.
In the fields of science, space and industry, planners want to include exhibits that direct attention to a variety of scientific instruments, man-made and natural “space objects,” industrial machines, computers and concepts not yet realized but dreamed of in startling clarity.
An area rich in wildlife must, of necessity, include in its stellar museum displays of eagles, deer, foxes, coyotes, waterfowl, mountain lions and more. And so it will.
Past and present military hardware, guns, tanks, cannons, gas masks, sabers, military clothing and more will find their place in the appropriate section devoted to conflict between men.
In rooms focusing on more peaceful interaction, there will be artistic displays with paintings and sculptures.
The “here today, gone tomorrow” section will provide a panorama of displays on loan and will be built to exacting specifications that will make it a fit temporary repository for exhibits rising to Smithsonian standards.
And, finally, the Enlightenment Room will include objects that tell stories not encompassed by the other sections.
A garden experience
More than a walking trail — although a delightful area for such purposes will be included — the green area will provide space for future building expansion, plus antique car and aircraft displays and the outdoor components of the alternate energy exhibit.
A pioneer village with log cabins, stores, early printing presses, a cotton gin and schools will rise on the grounds, perhaps located near the petting zoo and botanical gardens with sculptured trails and greenhouses.
An amphitheater that can serve a variety of education, entertainment and cultural purposes will also be included.
Room for discussion
The planned conference and convention center will utilize multi-purpose space design with movable walls for limiting or expanding spaces. Seating for 500-1,000 guests and areas dedicated to providing catering space to meet their creature comforts will be on the drawing board, as will staging areas for small convention needs and programming.
Offices for the convention center and visitors bureau would also be located in this area.
Come on in and sit a spell
Discussions with state and national authorities are aimed at creating a first-class tourism center with a host of modern amenities, such as a children’s day care area for tourists who cannot resist the lure of Discovery Park of America but want to enjoy certain areas for longer periods than their children may be able to manage.
The center itself would be both a comfortable experience and an enticing entrance into Discovery Park for travelers on the new I-69 and Highway 51. Tourism dollars could be made to flow locally with thoughtful handling of the project, Kirkland believes.
Jim Cooper, executive director of the Obion County Joint Economic Development Council, agrees: “Seldom do you see anyone invest this amount of personal money to help a community. This will have an unbelievable impact on the future of this community.”
Gov. Phil Bredesen, who recently met with a group representing Discovery Park of America, has pledged his support for the project, as well.
Rising to its full potential
The foundation is determined that the project will go forth in such a manner as will benefit both individuals who learn and grow there; local communities who utilize both the educational value, the commercial potential and the expanding sources of public revenue; and commercial entities who are able to enhance their own outreach because of an expanded customer base drawn to the community.
It will be a gem, but it has the potential to sparkle even more brilliantly if other entities are willing to share the dream.
The State of Tennessee is being asked to become involved by constructing the planned tourism center on the property in question, rather than at some previously discussed locations. A pledge to open the center on a timetable friendly to the completion of Discovery Park is also being sought.
An entrance to the park from Highway 51, with partial federal funding, and an exit from I-69 providing access to the park from both the north and south are also plusses the foundation is hoping for. An access road running parallel to I-69 between the two exits already on the drawing board for that super roadway would also be acceptable. Partial funding for this possibility could come from monies pledged for the interstate.
The state will also be asked to assist by providing displays and artifacts from state archives for loan or permanent display.
Plus, the foundation and others involved in the planning for Discovery Park of America are requesting $10 million from those who control the state’s purse strings in Nashville to equip and promote the Northwest Tennessee Tourism Center; to assist with funding for exhibits throughout the park; and to promote the entity, plus other local attractions such as Reelfoot Lake, Kentucky Lake, area state parks and other areas of interest in Tennessee.
Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely says, “It is important to preserve our history for future generations. I applaud Mr. and Mrs. Kirkland’s generous gift to this community and we at TDOT will explore all opportunities to help.”
The federal government’s role will include assisting with the presentation and procurement of historical artifacts and funding for either the federal portion of the I-69 exit or for access roads and for the federal portion of the U.S. Highway 51 entrance. Federal funding can also flow from grants for the park area, assistance with the alternative energy exhibits, material for the Congressional Forum Room and artifacts for the military equipment display.
Assistance in securing traveling artifacts from the Smithsonian and expertise from curators there will also be valuable contributions.
Federal assistance can also encompass the procurement of special grants and/or funding from private foundations to be used in the museum for display and historical preservation. A suggested $10 million appropriation for the historical preservation and procurement of historical artifacts for the museum and other federal exhibits appears on the wish-list, as well.
Tanner, who represents the district in Washington, has expressed his appreciation to the Kirklands. “I know this region will benefit because of their foresight and generosity. I support the project and will do all I can to assist,” he says.
Local assistance will be sought to help develop a suitable entrance to the park; to provide equipment and manpower for in-kind service; to funnel artifacts presently housed in the Obion County Museum into a new home; to guarantee electrical service to the property and lighting on roadways in the park by Union City Electric System; and to furnish water, sewer and other utilities to the site, museum and tourism center.
In addition, local funds can flow to help in the construction of the conference and convention center and to provide operational funds on an annual basis for utilities, maintenance and other operating expenses for the center.
Finally, the City of Union City will be asked to help fund the employment of a director for the convention and visitors bureau — possibly a split-time position with the museum.
All income from the conference and convention center would be used for operation of the center.
Obion County’s role would include assisting with land preparation and providing equipment and manpower for in-kind service.
The county would also transfer all items it owns in the current museum to the new site and would donate funds from the sale of the current museum property on Edwards Street in Union City to Discovery Park of America for museum development.
“We’re tickled to have someone who wants to come in and do something like this and create this vision and dream,” says Obion County Museum chairman Larry Mink.
A final word
“We want the foundation’s giving to be 99 percent directed to local projects. You really can change your own back yard,” says Jenny Kirkland, president of the foundation.
And what a change Discovery Park of America would provide in this back yard.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted by e-mail at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger on 10.10.07