Kirklands favor mind-expanding gifts
By GLENDA H. CAUDLE Special Features Editor
Are there limits to what children — and inquiring adults — can discover?
“Of course not,” say Robert and Jenny Kirkland.
And they are supporting that faith in the boundless nature of the human mind and spirit with the construction in Union City of a 50-acre $100 million project to be known as Discovery Park of America.
Envisioned as a celebration of life that will emphasize the culture, spirit and accomplishments of the human race, the multi-dimensional facility will begin to take shape soon after the turn of the new year.
Once completed in the spring of 2010, it will be a magnet for both families and individuals seeking a unique entertainment-educational adventure and will draw “inquiring minds” from across this nation and even far flung areas of the globe.
Best of all for local families, it will provide an amazing spur to learning across a broad spectrum of interests.
Situated in an area that has been touted recently for its unique convergence of transportation possibilities, the site for Discovery Park will be on the west side of North Everett Boulevard in Union City, with easy access from the soon-to-be constructed I-69 super highway and existing Highway 51.
While the world-class museum that will be the anchor for Discovery Park will occupy most of the time and talent of internationally recognized architect Douglas Cardinal, the facility’s planners also envision a nationally-rated tourism center to provide modern amenities for travelers on I-69 and Highway 51; gardens and green areas that will capitalize on outdoor exhibits, walkways, trails, botanical gardens and greenhouses; and a multi-purpose conference and convention center to serve the region.
The Robert and Jenny Kirkland Foundation is underwriting $20 million toward the initial land purchase and development of the museum and garden area. The services of Canadian architect Cardinal — who favors curvilinear, organic buildings and has proposed an outstanding example of his talent and imagination as the centerpiece of this new mind-expansion center — guarantee an eye-catching and truly unique physical plant.
Cardinal, who received his architectural training in Texas, has made a primary visit to the area and will be returning soon to form additional impressions and give more detail to his original concept.
“I want to understand the people themselves,” he says of his return trip to Union City, noting that his first drawings have taken form based on the city’s actual birth from a transportation theme of the 19th century — the railroad — and its vision of progess into the 21st Century — expanded highway and air and water transport. “I have a special feeling for the people of the South,” says the Canadian, “because that’s where I received my education. The foundation of my career came from the South and I feel a tremendous connection to it.”
The ideas of multiple planning committees and the Kirklands’ own concepts assure visitors the chance to learn about the past, celebrate the present and dream for the future in Cardinal’s design. The completed first-class exhibits will afford children and adults who are looking for a “mind-blowing” experience the opportunity to utilize all their senses in that endeavor — and to enjoy every moment of it.
The foundation is also pledging another $20 million to buy artifacts and pay rental for outstanding traveling exhibits for the museum.
“I am extremely impressed with the generosity and vision of Bob and Jenny Kirkland and their desire to create such an amazing tourist destination that would benefit Union City and all of West Tennessee,” says Tennessee Department of Tourist Development commissioner Susan Whitaker. “As described (Discovery Park) would attract visitors with an enormous variety of interests — a ‘must-see destination.’”
Local and state officials are excited at the prospect of tourist dollars flowing into the community as word of Discovery Park spreads.
“A project of this type will have a high impact on the future of this community and region. We are very fortunate to have this investment in tourism for our community,” says Jim Rippy, chairman of the Obion County Joint Economic Development Council.
But for the Kirklands, whose gifts to the area always have an educational component, the true benefit will be the opportunity afforded minds to expand.
“We have so much to offer here,” Jenny Kirkland says of the couple’s home town. “Children in our community have unbelievable opportunities to learn, to pursue any educational dream, to chart any course for their future.”
The Kirklands can point to the Promethean Foundation, which offers scholarships to children from birth to kindergarten at specially selected preschools in Obion County, as a primary and pivotal undertaking in their effort to help create a community of well-educated and goal-oriented individuals — firmly grounded in the characteristics of citizenship and integrity — who will be well equipped to chart successful futures. That initial education-centered project, which their foundation underwrites, also provides special training and resources for the preschools and stresses character development and academics.
Reading Railroad, the local arm of entertainer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Books From Birth program, is another effort to get children off on the right foot educationally by providing free, high-quality, carefully selected books for little ones from birth until their fifth birthdays.
Kirkland says children in this area also have the opportunity to attend schools that are stretching their educational boundaries as administrators encourage and train teachers to open up new vistas of learning and advise parents that mediocrity cannot be considered acceptable in the classroom. As evidence of that commitment, the Union City School System has opened the area’s first magnet school for students who want to experience college-level courses in a high school setting and is busily expanding challenging classroom components to the middle school and elementary school levels, while offering concentrated tutoring for students who are facing challenges.
The new Boys & Girls Club, for which Kirkland has words of praise, has welcomed almost 1,000 children to its membership rolls and is seeking assistance in expanding its physical plant to offer programs for even more students in need of a safe place to grow and learn and develop in out-of-school hours.
The bountiful educational and cultural resources provided by the Obion County Public Library — a gift to the community from Bill and Carol Latimer and Kathleen Elam — make it a community treasure for children and adults, according to Kirkland.
And once the students who have been offered this firm foundation complete their local education opportunities, the Kirklands note, they can expect their community’s ongoing support in the form of the Rotary Scholarship program (to the tune of more than $300,000 per year) and other generous college finance packages with local backing, including the Bill and Carol Latimer Charitable Foundation’s College Opportunity Fund Program.
As he ticks off these rich educational gifts, Kirkland makes it clear he believes such bounty should be capitalized upon as agencies and boards look at ways to attract industry and investment locally.
“Companies, businesses and industry looking for a place to locate will not find any other community in America that takes such good care of its children, especially its at-risk children, from the time they are born until they graduate and can take advantage of the scholarships offered. What a quality of life enticement for a company’s employees. What a pool of educated workers to draw from,” Kirkland says.
And he sees Discovery Park as an “enlightenment” opportunity that will serve the dual purpose of providing one more gloriously wrapped present for inquiring minds, while also attracting interest in the area from a wide spectrum of potential investors in the community’s future.
“I looked around at all the things offered here and I asked myself, ‘What else is there to do to get people to have an “Aha!” moment?’ I wondered how many students never get outside Obion County. In my growing up years, my parents took me to museums and it’s amazing what you can see,” says Kirkland.
“Discovery Park is what Robert and I envision as a place for children to get ideas about where they’ve come from, where they’re going, what vocations they might want to explore. Maybe it will spark some interest for them as they grow up. Maybe it will help them find some endeavor they would love to pursue,” Jenny Kirkland, president of the foundation, says.
“The Kirkland Foundation is dedicated to funding local educational projects like Discovery Park of America. We can’t make the whole world right, but we can improve our own back yard,” she adds.
Discovery Park may still be on the drawing boards for those charged with completing its setting, but it is a reality rich with ongoing potential for those who first envisioned it.
And its impact on the community fortunate enough to receive it is, of course, immeasurable.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger on 10.10.07