After years without a building, the Chattanooga History Center is positioning itself in the heart of the downtown tourism district with a multimillion-dollar project.
Last year, the History Center announced it would move into the Riverplace building, part of the Tennessee Aquarium plaza, by spring 2012. Now it's in the home stretch to raise the necessary money to purchase the site and develop the center itself, said Maury Nicely, president of the center's board of directors.
"We are currently completing what, in essence, is the quiet phase of the campaign -- dealing with foundations and a few large donors," he said.
The next step is to accept donations from local corporations and individuals, he said.
The History Center receives funding from Chattanooga and Hamilton County -- $18,000 from the city and $28,000 from the county in the 2010 fiscal year -- which goes toward operating costs, but that money will not be used to fund the project.
Next month, the center will complete the purchase of the 19,500-square-foot space in the Riverplace building, said Kim White, president of River City Co., which currently owns the space.
For the past 13 years, the location has been home to the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which will relocate its offices to the SunTrust Office Tower downtown and the Visitors Center to the former Bijou Theatre in December.
Nicely said the move to the new location from the History Center's current offices on Lindsay Street has been a long time coming.
"We've been a museum without walls for two years and, while we've been able to go take some programs and walking tours into the community, it's been impossible for people to come see the unique and interesting things in the History Center's collection," he said. "It's exciting -- and frankly a bit of a relief -- to be back in a location where people can see these things."
Daryl Black, executive director of the center, said the project is about 40 percent through the design phase and will be constructed to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
Design firm Ralph Applebaum Associates -- known for designing the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Volkswagen's Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, among others -- was chosen to design the center, which will serve as "the city's front porch," Black said.
When the History Center opens its doors in 2012, those familiar with the site's current incarnation as the home of the Visitors Center will see "some very serious redesigns," he said.
"It will be very different," he said. "It will be one of the most exciting interior spaces that Chattanooga has ever seen."
The center will walk visitors through the historical happenings in the city from the time of the Cherokee Indians to present day. The interpretive exhibit, which will feature several time periods in the city's history, will take up about 9,000 square feet, leaving about 10,000 square feet for programming, Black said.
The programming area is what the center is calling its community forum, "a large space that deals with contemporary issues and represents a dashboard of Chattanooga's hot topics or issues," he said.
"Physically, you'll be able to choose to go through all of the gallery spaces in a linear fashion, or you'll be able to go down through the center and pick where you want to go," Black said. "We don't want this to be so over determined that people feel like it's some sort of march through time, but we also want to provide the kinds of structures that will allow people to have the sense of the flow of events as they moved in chronology."
Bob Doak, president and chief executive of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the new attraction will be "a welcome addition."
"It gives us an opportunity to attract a different type of tourist, more of the history buff," he said. "And any time you add a new attraction, it also lends itself for the possibility of someone extending their stay."
Having a physical location where the public can visit the center not only completes a long-term goal for the museum, but will bring in much-needed revenue, Nicely said.
"It is a challenge to run an organization when you don't have a building," he said. "A museum depends upon both donations and people coming in the doors and, when you don't have doors for people to come through, it is a challenge to remain viable."