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Discovery Park to open in Union City, Tenn.

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Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2013 7:00 am

For more than five years, drivers north and southbound on U.S. Route 51 have watched the Discovery Park of America rise brick by brick in the middle of a Union City, Tenn., cornfield.

At 10 a.m. on Nov. 1, they’ll be able to turn in and explore the near-$100 million 50-acre facility in full, as the long-awaited attraction opens to the public following a ribbon cutting at the site.

Replete with hands-on activities, vivid displays, lush gardens and intricate paths, Discovery Park of America was built as a place where – as CEO Jim Rippy put it – history, entertainment and education could converge into one area in Obion County.

“We expect people to have the time of their lives,” Rippy said in a press conference on Tuesday. “Early on, I had somebody say to me, ‘I want to meet the nut who’s behind this.’”

The “nut” is Robert E. Kirkland, an Obion County native, who along with his wife, Jenny, formed the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation.

Fronting nearly $80 million up front and a continued gift of $3 million for the next 20 years ($2 million for operations, $1 million for new exhibits), Kirkland said he wanted to create a facility that could provide education for all ages and make it affordable to all families in the immediate area.

While the facility and grounds may look out of place in rural west Tennessee, Kirkland said it was anything but, avoiding locations such as Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis and Nashville for a reason.

“We’re less than 24 hours from 95 percent of the U.S. population east of the Rocky Mountains,” he said. “We have a strong workforce here and educated citizens.”

The central building on the grounds features 10 galleries and includes an earthquake simulator, a 20,000-gallon aquarium showcasing Reelfoot Lake, an interactive starship theater and 120-foot tower with a glass elevator.

A complete story will run in our 2013 winter edition of In Our Backyard.

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