AASLH Member Since 2008
Sitting in a cornfield in the middle of rural northwest, Tennessee is the nation’s newest attraction. Opening November 1, 2013, Discovery Park of America was founded by local residents Robert and Jenny Kirkland. It’s a $100 million dollar project, offering jobs to hundreds of people for the past five years.
The reason that Discovery Park of America is sitting in the middle of a corn field in Union City, TN is because of the vision of these native Obion Countians. “We have been blessed, and see it as a mission to bring this exceptional educational experience to this area. But, learning should never be boring, so one of the goals of Discovery Park is to entertain and delight our guests, while providing information about history, science, art and the area in which we live,” Kirkland explained. “Our tag line, ‘See Beyond” pretty much sums it up. We want people to see beyond their current level of knowledge and to have the opportunity to see and experience things at Discovery Park that they might otherwise not have.”
And, people will see beyond at Discovery Park. From the 120 foot look-out tower, providing a 360 degree view of this rural farmland, to an amazing Starship Theater where guests will ‘blast off’ into outer space to experience a realistic space voyage experience; there are opportunities to play, learn and see beyond around every corner.
The 50-acre complex boasts an entertaining ‘grounds-and-garden’ experience, as well as an iconic 100,000 square foot Discovery Center featuring ten learning galleries. “Discovery Park is unique…there’s no place like it anywhere,” Rippy said. The Discovery Park vision began with Kirkland and Rippy, but the approach to bring it to reality was quite unique.
“Mr. Kirkland invited the community to become involved,” said Polly Brasher, long time volunteer and now the Education Director at the park. “Over 250 people came out for a planning meeting at The Hampton Center when the project was launched. This volunteer-army became the committees that are now represented by galleries, gardens and areas throughout the park.”
For example, the Yesteryear Committee, led by Charlie Grooms was instrumental in developing the areas that surround the 1 ½ mile sidewalk that winds throughout the grounds. Freedom Square, The Chapel, The Depot, The Settlement, The Barn and Mill Ridge are all free standing exhibit areas nestled among a beautiful water feature that flows through the Discovery Park grounds. Sprinkle in four unique garden areas, a shrub lined maze, a grand pavilion sponsored by the local Rotary Club and a Great Lawn; and the grounds at Discovery Park rival any garden in the world.
Inside Discovery Center, you can see the vision of the volunteers come to life, with features like the giant human slide, the earthquake simulator, the starship theater, the tower and the list goes on. “Every gallery has something extra special. We think that it will take a full day, if not two to see everything we have at Discovery Park!” Rippy explained.
But, the fun doesn’t end there. Event Director Melissa Caldwell has big plans for Discovery Park. “We plan to have music in the park every other week throughout the summer,” Melissa said. “We are hoping to have a couple of big concerts on the lawn, we are discussing car shows, motorcycle shows, maybe even an arts and crafts fair. We are going to give people from all around this region and beyond a reason to keep coming back to Discovery Park.”
Although Mr. Kirkland involved the community and invited local experts and visionaries to be involved in the project as volunteers, when it came to hiring a workforce, he pulled out all stops. The architect was Lou Sirianni of Verner Johnson, Inc. out of Boston, Massachusetts. The graphics and design of the galleries was the inspiration of Thinc Design out of New York and the display builder is Maltbie out of New Jersey. Local contractor Allen Searcy has coordinated the project. “When I received a phone call from David Searcy four years ago, I was invited to an interview. After meeting with Mr. Kirkland, I suggested a “turn-key” approach,” Sirianni explained. I am a museum architect. I brought Maltbie and Thinc to the table from the beginning because I have worked with them before and they do excellent work.” Mr. Kirkland told me that he wanted something that had never been seen before. “I think we did that,” Sirianni said with a smile.
It is a big, big story for a small town in rural west Tennessee, located at least two hours from a major metropolitan area. “Memphis is two hours south, and Nashville is about 2 ½ hours southeast of Union City,” Rippy said. “We have something that will catch the eye of the nation here, maybe even the world.”
From the entrepreneur spirit of the founder, to the unique design and experience of the venue, Discovery Park of America is a unique human interest story and a delightful place to visit. “It captures the heart of America, combining the essence of our historical past with the interactive and technological visions of the future. It’s history and technology on display, it’s educational and fun. For more information about Discovery Park of America, visit the website at www.discoveryparkofamerica.com.