New Discovery Park In Rural Tennessee Leaves Community Split

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 6:01 pm



Tomorrow, a new tourist attraction opens in Tennessee called The Discovery Park of America. Some say it's like a mini-Smithsonian. But it's not in Memphis, Nashville or Chattanooga. It's in tiny Union City, far from any of the state's major destinations.

Chad Lampe of member station WKMS has the story behind this metropolitan park in the rural Tennessee.

CHAD LAMPE, BYLINE: Discovery Park is anchored by a 100,000 square foot exhibit space. It's packed with dinosaur skeletons, a starship theater even a universe exhibit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Inside the first stars, fusion converts the primordial hydrogen and helium...

LAMPE: There's also a simulator of the famed 1812 New Madrid earthquake.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was the worst day I ever witnessed.

LAMPE: This is one of at least 15 buildings at the park which also includes a mill, train depot and restored century-old chapel. Discovery Park executive director Jim Rippy says it's not a science center or amusement park.

JIM RIPPY: We don't call it a museum - it's history, education, entertainment.

LAMPE: Discovery Park is flanked by two corn fields and near a road bend that will one day connect with Interstate 69. Union City is in northwest Tennessee home to about 10,000 people and just a handful of hotels and restaurants. Economic development director Lindsey Frilling says this is a great opportunity.

LINDSEY FRILLING: We still have a lot of work to do. We need our community to really ramp up their customer service skills. Because it's not just about the time they spend here at Discovery Park, it's about the experience that they have when they are here in our community.

LAMPE: Just a short drive from the Discovery Park is the Penny Hill Shoppe. David Fowler is eating a late lunch and says not everyone in the community thinks the park is a good idea.

DAVID FOWLER: There are a lot of skeptics. There are a lot of people that think something like that just won't go over here - that he's just wasted the money.

LAMPE: The he Fowler refers to is retail and real estate mogul Robert E. Kirkland. He's bank-rolling the nonprofit project. He grew up here and is committed to educational opportunities for children around Union City. This park, he says, is meant to allow visitors to see beyond their current way of life. And while he acknowledges he could have spent his $100 million in other ways to help the community, he has a few words for his skeptics.

ROBERT E. KIRKLAND: 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 would like.

LAMPE: Discovery Park has already hired recruiters to visit schools within a three-hour drive to book field trips. 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.

For NPR News, I'm Chad Lampe.



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