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Flint Hills Discovery Center

June 28th, 2011 at 11:40 am

This week’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


Its exterior walls have varied layers of limestone, similar to what can be seen in road cuts along area highways. A four-story cylinder of glass will allow the Kansas sky to dance into the atrium. Inside this building under construction, the story of the Flint Hills, past and present, will be told.

A few weeks ago, I took a hard-hat tour of the Flint Hills Discovery Center, which has risen from the earth in Manhattan. Bob Workman, director of the center, led the tour.

Workman said the museum’s mission is to celebrate the natural and cultural history of the region, to inspire people to explore the Flint Hills, and to encourage us all to become better stewards of the land.

The $24.5 million Discovery Center is a project of the City of Manhattan, but the facility will benefit the entire region. This museum will be something of a home base for Flint Hills exploration, educating visitors about the value of this unique ecosystem, and is designed to send tourists both into the hills and into regional communities.

An impressive building with 35,000 square feet of space, the museum is at the edge of downtown Manhattan and a block away from Town Center Mall.

During my tour, the building was at the concrete-and steel-phase, open to the elements. But it was exciting to stand within this rough sketch of a building, to see it in its most basic form. On a smoldering June day, quick breezes blew through the structure, and the grinding of construction equipment echoed in the cavernous space.

Standing in the building’s open shell, I remembered my tour of Emporia’s Granada Theatre when its interior was a jungle-gym of scaffolding. In the dark Granada, as I was told what it would eventually look like, I was forced to imagine something far more glamorous than the stripped and dusty restoration project it was at the time.

So, with the magnificent transformation of the Granada in mind, I was pleased to be able to have this skeleton tour of the Flint Hills Discovery Center, to have each section of the building described by Bob Workman – the exhibit areas, the immersion theater, a section for young children, and to try to picture the areas as they will look when the building opens in the spring of 2012.

Workman described the facility as a non-collecting museum. “We will have some borrowed artifacts, props, but no curators.”

He was excited about the immersion theater. “It will be that ‘wow’ that you won’t find anywhere else,” Workman said. A 12-15 minute high-definition film shot in the Flint Hills will be shown on a screen, 67 feet wide and 12 feet high.

With a plan to be open 362 days a year, the Discovery Center will attract explorers, travelers and tourists. Workman said that the center will also be helpful to orient the large transient population in the Manhattan-Junction City area. “Between the university and Fort Riley, we have a lot of people passing through,” he said.

From this hub in Manhattan, curious travelers will set out to wander around the Flint Hills, perhaps to Alma or Cottonwood Falls, or maybe to Council Grove or Emporia.

An interactive kiosk in the atrium can be used by visitors to search for restaurants, lodging, or to plan day trips according to their interests, for example, antiquing or agri-tourism. Some may want to follow a scenic byway or to investigate historic sites. Itineraries can be either printed out or sent to a smart phone.

Terraces on two levels of the center overlook the city. Also planned is an adjacent public park with water features. A motel, conference center and parking garage are being constructed nearby.

With interactive displays, the museum will tell the story of the Flint Hills region – explaining the past 200 million years. Exhibits will show how the hills were created as well the importance of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem to us and to the planet.

I’ll be excited to return to the Discovery Center next year to see the finished building. For those of us who call the Flint Hills home, I think the museum will serve to increase the bond that we already have with this unique region of Kansas.

As Workman said, “We’re creating something here that celebrates our own heritage.”

Copyright 2011 ~ Cheryl Unruh


buildings, columns, places

  1. Roger
    June 28th, 2011 at 12:04 | #1

    Sounds like an exciting development.

  2. June 30th, 2011 at 10:17 | #2

    Cheryl, I just wanted to thank you so much for your article. After reading it, I feel the excitment of everyone who has had a chance to have a “first look” of the Discovery Center.

    We can’t wait for the Flint Hills Discovery Center to open in April of 2012, so it can be a place for people to be inspired to celebrate, explore, and care for the Flint Hills.

    I hope we can keep in touch. We are posting your article on our site at http://www.flinthillsdiscovery.org

    Take care, Melissa