When Jim Rippy begins his second retirement in January, he’ll do so knowing that he helped make his friend, businessman and philanthropist Robert Kirkland’s dream come true. After ten years at the helm of Discovery Park of America, a premiere museum and heritage park that has attracted more than 1.2 million visitors to northwest Tennessee since opening five years ago, Rippy, his team and the community around DPA have accomplished what many said couldn’t be done.
Though Kirkland died in 2015, he was able to see much of his dream realized. The concept began as a potential major expansion of the Obion County Museum suggested by Kirkland to the museum’s board. When Rippy, then CEO of Westan Insurance, reported to Kirkland that a proposal for extensive commercial development built around a museum had been discussed by Obion County Chamber of Commerce and the Obion County Industrial Development Corporation but ultimately deemed unfeasible, Kirkland came back to Rippy with a new approach, funding and the request to his friend to oversee the project.
Kirkland, a native of Union City, said at the time, “This area was a wonderful place to grow up. People here are hard‐working and intelligent and deserve a great future. It was my goal to build a permanent venue to enhance education for children as well as adults and to do it in an entertaining way for all ages.”
Kirkland also stated he wanted the building design to “possibly stop traffic at 70 mph.”
When DPA’s 135 employees plus friends and family celebrate Rippy on Dec. 10, they will have plenty of evidence of “mission accomplished.”
With 50 acres to work with and a budget primarily financed by the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation, the museum/park could have gone in any number of directions. But Kirkland had a plan for making the area’s largest attraction one that the area wanted to see – ask them. When the idea was little more than an idea, the Kirklands invited more than 200 friends to dream. What they came up with was a multi-faceted celebration of history, art, science, technology, wildlife, agriculture, and transportation.
The architecture of Verner Johnson, Inc., and the exhibits of Thinc Design, brought the “wow” factor to northwest Tennessee and, as of this month, more than 1,250,000 visitors from around the world have experienced the unique, one-of-a-kind museum. As an organization focused on education, it’s especially important to note 107,000 of those visitors were students, many of them on one of more than 1,700 field trips to DPA that have taken place since opening day.
The buy-in from the community is reflected in not just those initial ideas but their physical contributions to exhibits as well. Fossils unearthed by nearby University of Tennessee at Martin students on a Kirkland-sponsored dig, a 1903 Wright Brothers flyer constructed by Obion County Central High schoolers, a five-year-old’s 2,500+ year-old Native American cache found in his garden, and volunteers who regularly share their artistic talents and craft-making skills are a few of the numerous examples of how West Tennessee has shaped its premiere tourist attraction.
That support is returned as Rippy points to the economic impact DPA has brought to the region. Kathy Dillon, city manager for Union City, reports that since DPA opened in 2013, sales tax receipts in the area have increased by 7.55%.
Lindsay Frilling, Chief Executive Officer with the Obion County Joint Economic Development Council, calls DPA “an anchor tourism asset for Obion County” noting that since its opening, Obion County’s annual economic impact of tourism went over the $50 million mark.
“This number has continued to grow and is now at $53.39 million in direct tourism expenditures, supporting 410 jobs and over $10 million in payroll,” she added.
Rippy anticipates that impact to increase as two new hotels are currently under construction and the land adjacent to DPA is available for further retail development. The hotels are projected to open in June of next year which means tour groups will now be easily accommodated resulting in higher restaurant and retail sales in the area as well. Interstate 69’s anticipated opening in 2024 is also a factor in the future success of DPA. As is the new CEO and President Scott Williams who has returned to his native west Tennessee after six years with the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a nationally acclaimed interactive museum devoted to exploring and celebrating the free press.
“I’ve spent my first weeks here listening and learning,” said Williams of his time since arriving in November. “I look forward to building on what the incredibly talented team here at DPA has accomplished. Of course, as a nonprofit, another of our biggest assets is that the community is so invested in this organization. I’ll be looking for even more ways for those who live and work in this region to join us in our mission to provide transformational experiences for children and adults from around the world,” he concluded.
As for Rippy, he says he isn’t exactly sure what one does in retirement since his first one lasted less than a day as he went from one CEO position to the next. He knows his newest to-do list includes time with his wife Martha, three kids and five grandchildren, a bit of carpentry, and visits to his lake house. But, with his recent campaign for city council ending successfully, he’s not going too far.
“I’d like to use everything I’ve done and my knowledge to help Union City,” he concluded. “I feel like I know where to go to get some things done.”
One gets the feeling that Robert Kirkland would agree.
The mission of Discovery Park of America, a premier world-class museum and 50-acre attraction located in Union City, Tennessee, is to enhance the educational experience of children and adults and to inspire them to see beyond their current level of knowledge. Included is a 100,000-square-foot museum featuring 9 interactive exhibit galleries with additional space for temporary exhibits from around the world and a 50-acre heritage park. Discovery Park of America is a 501(c)(3) public charity funded by generous individuals, corporations and foundations including its principal funder, the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation. For more information, visit DiscoveryParkofAmerica.com.
Story by: Karen Campbell