editorial (2006-37)

Bring a New Discovery Center into Being Now

Find its best downtown site, and let’s get started for the sake of this community’s children

Bring a New Discovery Center into Being Now

Of all the public/private projects that have come under consideration in Knoxville over the past several years, most have been shelved for reasons of cost, bickering and/or inability to select and secure a proper site. One item that is not on the ash heap yet is one that is most glaringly needed. It’s an expanded and improved East Tennessee Discovery Center for children.

The current center on Beaman Street, tucked in a corner of the Knoxville Zoo property, is a woefully inadequate physical facility with no visibility and poor accessibility. Considering those conditions, the center does a great job of providing colorful and instructive hands-on exhibits that expose visiting children to the rudiments of science, But the little museum attracts only a little over 20,000 visits per year. Its outreach programs to area schools reach more kids than that.

A new, state-of-the-arts-and-sciences facility could reasonably be expected to attract 10 times that many visitors a year, providing exposure to health, science and technology exhibits that area children cannot now get without traveling to Chattanooga, where its Creative Discovery Center has enjoyed great success since its 1995 opening.

The most recent discussions of an appropriate location for a new Discovery Center here have centered on the South Knox Waterfront Redevelopment Plan. There might be an opportunity there sometime, if we delay long enough. But to designate the center as a lynchpin of that plan would virtually guarantee it would not come to fruition for eight or 10 years or more. Let’s look downtown first, where a new center could be opened in three or four years if a site were selected today.

The old convention center at the World’s Fair Park was once discussed, and it could be adapted for reuse as a Discovery Center. Its advantage is that the city already owns the property. Even before that, there was talk of creating a new Discovery Center in conjunction with and adjacent to a new central library on the former News Sentinel Building site at Church Avenue and State Street, just a block off Gay Street.

That Sentinel site could have been ideal, save for the failure of a new library to gather any political steam when it was advanced four years ago. Another, perhaps yet unexplored possibility would be to re-adapt the current Lawson McGhee Library building at Church and Locust Street to house a Discovery Center, relocating the main library to a new building elsewhere downtown. The space is there for such a move, if parking problems could be overcome to accommodate the families who’d visit a Discovery Center.

An expanded central library is still needed, and it’s still a possibility, but steps toward establishing the new downtown library are not likely to be taken any time soon. The Discovery Center, though, is virtually ready to go and has the backing of both the Knoxville and Knox County mayors and has secured commitments of substantial private contributions.

It won’t come cheap. It will take an estimated $20 million to achieve the goal of an exemplary new Discovery Center, which should be expected to require another $2 million or more in annual operating costs, about half of which it could expect to raise for itself through admissions, events and gift shop sales. Those costs are comparable to those borne by Chattanooga and Columbia, S.C., where similar centers are attracting around 200,000 annual visits in similarly populated metropolitan areas. Other cities with children’s museums or centers much newer than our 1974 facility have shown marked successes, including the less populous metropolitan-area communities of Lexington, Ky., and Huntsville, Ala.

A master-planning process is underway, but it is on hold until the site is determined. Some aspects of such a center are simply site-specific. Let’s make a determination, but let’s make it soon and assure that it can get underway more quickly than anything could be started south of the river.

Though anticipated private contributions and memberships will contribute mightily to offsetting a new Discovery Center’s costs, an endowment would seem a way to   guarantee that operating costs are met consistently, and no one has so far come forward with the offer of the several millions of dollars to set up such an endowment. Consider this a hint, if you will, but that kind of support may be needed in the long run. In the short run, let’s get started.

One of the government-owned downtown properties would surely seem to be the best option—either along Church Avenue or at the World’s Fair Park. If we can keep costs down and bickering at a minimum, maybe we can get a grand new Discovery Center in place, performing the educational role it should for children of our community and our region, by 2010. For our kids’ sake let’s not relegate this opportunity to another dusty shelf.