New in rural Tennessee: Discovery Park of America

Published on NewsOK Modified: October 31, 2013 at 11:18 am •  Published: October 31, 2013

UNION CITY, Tenn. (AP) — 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 located 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 (36-meter) glass-encased observation tower and a 50-foot (15-meter) metal replica of the human body that includes a 32-foot (10-meter) slide.

The 50-acre (20-hectare) 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 says 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.