With a population of about 11,000 people, Union City, Tenn., is not what you would call a tourism magnet.
If you are interested in the outdoors, chances are you might have visited nearby Reelfoot Lake to crappie fish or duck hunt. As you drive through Union City, you're apt to check out Dixie Gun Works, considered the largest supplier of black powder shooting equipment, parts and antique guns in the world. Or you may pay a visit to Final Flight Outfitters, 20,000 square feet showing off every brand, make and model of outdoor gear you can imagine.
However, you won't find a heck of a lot in the area to appeal to the nonhunters or fishermen in the family. But that is about to change.
Discovery Park of America, currently under construction in Union City, looms over the skyline, looking as if a giant spaceship has landed. Chattanooga has an aquarium, 3-D theater, science museum, art galleries, historic attractions and all that kind of stuff tourists love, but Union City can't quite support all that. Instead, they've rolled it all into one big complex.
When it opens this fall, the Discovery Park of America centerpiece will be Discovery Center, a 100,000-square-foot building that will showcase 10 exhibit galleries: children’s exploration, energy, enlightenment, military, Native Americans, natural history, regional history, science/space/technology and transportation. In addition, a special exhibit gallery will feature traveling exhibits. All that will be surrounded by a 50-acre complex created and landscaped to take visitors back into yesteryear.
The Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation is Discovery Park’s principal benefactor. The Kirkland family founded Kirkland’s home décor retail stores. The foundation has donated or committed approximately $80 million to the creation of Discovery Park and has created a program of $2 to $3 million continuing support after opening for operational support and expansion.
Recently, writers from the Tennessee Outdoor Writers Association were treated to a sneak peek inside the construction zone. Amid the sheetrock dust and hard-hatted construction workers were the makings of a unique facility.
The Discovery Center will include a theater simulation of the 1811-12 earthquakes that shaped the land in the region, as well as a planetary tour in the starship theater; a 20,000-gallon aquarium revealing the underwater life of Reelfoot Lake; a 60-foot replica of a human body with a 30-foot slide; and dinosaurs, fossils, Native American artifacts, military equipment, vintage automobiles and dozens more hands-on experiences for children.
Outside at Discovery Park, there will be a stream originating at a 1800s gristmill that cuts through the site, including waterfalls and bridges as well as extensive landscaping; Japanese, European and American gardens that allow visitors to connect with nature and learn about plants and flowers from around the world; log cabins, farm buildings and equipment, and family items providing a glimpse into rural life in the 1800s; a 100-year-old church; a train station with a locomotive and various cars; and a salute to America’s independence, including a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Union City is basically in the opposite corner of Tennessee from Chattanooga—too far away to be considered a competitor. And right now, Union City and Reelfoot Lake are the kinds of places where you are likely to say, "You can't get there from here." It is hard to just "pass through" Union City on the way somewhere else.
Again, Discovery Park of America officials are hoping that will soon change. Interstate 69 is an ongoing project that will add a new interstate highway running from Michigan to the southern tip of Texas. The planned path goes directly by Discovery Park of America, and CEO Jim Rippy said, "When it gets done, we will be right between two interstate exits."
Discovery Park of America has been a long time coming. The idea was born in 2006, and Kirkland came onboard in 2007 with new, bigger ideas—and more importantly, money. That's when serious planning started, and construction began in 2008. There was a delay because of problems with an architect, but once that got settled, it's been full steam ahead. Standing in the center of the construction zone, Rippy admitted that a fall grand opening is an aggressive plan.
"It may not look like it right now," Rippy said. "But we'll get there."
Guiding writers through the labyrinth, Rippy's eyes gleamed. The retired insurance executive said Discovery Park of America is the shared dream of a lot of people. He admits there are naysayers, much as there were naysayers in Chattanooga who thought the Tennessee Aquarium was a boondoggle.
"We've been down there to see what all you're doing in Chattanooga," Rippy said. "We've been a lot of places gathering ideas."
He is convinced Discovery Park of America will do for Northwest Tennessee what the Tennessee Aquarium did for Chattanooga.
If the man's enthusiasm is any indication, I agree.