The purpose of the Flint Hills Discovery Center is to attract educational tourism to Manhattan, just like a new fine arts center should attract entertainment tourism, as part of the south downtown redevelopment project. But considering the content of the $22.9 million museum dedicated to the Great Plains, I’m reminded of an episode of “The Simpsons” where Principal Skinner submits the kids to a field trip to the box factory.
According to the Flint Hills Discovery Center comprehensive master plan released this February, “Surround sound systems, multiple side or front projection screens, iconic objects, floor subwoofers and light effects will help recreate the kinds of intense experiences that happen in the Flint Hills, including thunder storms, prairie fires, floods, tornados and stampedes,” to provide intense aesthetic and spiritual experiences for visitors.
There are two issues that concern me about the Discovery Center: The lack of returning tourists the Center will suffer and the financial burden it unloads on Manhattan residents already responsible for the long-term demands of STAR bonds.
The plan describes four primary audience groups and the advantages the Center will offer them, such as tourists looking for an unusual experience, residents who will appreciate a wide range of programming, groups of children and short-term residents who can discover and connect with the local community.
It is an ideal plan on paper, but city commissioners are counting their chickens before they hatch. When I think of the Flint Hills, any aesthetic or spiritual experience that comes to mind includes the vast expanse of sloping hills, waving grass, fresh air and sun in my eyes. These are wonderful experiences to want to share with others, but simulating them with exhibits is like listening for the ocean in a seashell.
I believe the primary income for this type of museum will be field-trip driven, rather than repeat local and family visitors. This is exactly the kind of educational, interactive center that teachers would bus their students to for an educational day out of the classroom. However, I believe the Center will find it hard to make the Flint Hills a varied experience from year to year.
The core exhibits will be focused on exploring the Flint Hills, the Flint Hills story, the prairie winds immersive experience and the prairie winds gallery. While there is no shortage of information available on these topics, subwoofers and thunder storm effects leave much to be desired.
The plan states the most important aspect of the Center is for Manhattan residents to feel a sense of ownership in the Center. It would be hard for a resident not to feel like he or she owned a part of the Center considering the price tag. Ideally, the STAR bonds will pay for themselves, but with a lack of interest and repeat attendance from the community, where is that money going to come from? The gift shop and snack bar will make bank from field trips, but what other opportunities will there be for families and stand-alone visitors to spend reasonable amounts of money while touring simulations of what they can experience for free outside?
I have no doubt this Center will be built with the best intentions; however, city commissioners might want to reconsider the one-way street aspect of disseminating Flint Hills information. To establish a feeling of community ownership, they should implement an effective way for Flint Hills natives to continually add information to the exhibits so they never look quite the same. Otherwise, the Center will have a hard time convincing locals they should experience outdoor Kansas in an air-conditioned environment.
Whitney Hodgin is a senior in print journalism. Please send comments to email@example.com.