A proposal to create a Buffalo National River Discovery Center and house it in one of the old Harrison junior high school buildings came before the City Advertising and Tourism Promotion Commission (CATPC) at its November meeting. Dave Fitton, long-time Harrison resident and a former city council member, has been discussing the possibility with individuals and organizations the past few months.
He said the proposal cannot move forward unless some entity takes ownership of the project. He said he thought the CATPC was a likely candidate.
The former junior high campus has been vacant for about two years. Fitton explained the discovery center would not only promote America's first national river as a destination for tourism, but it would leverage the asset for Harrison and all other gateway communities in the area, especially Jasper, Marshall and Yellville, as well as the surrounding communities of Big Flat, Pindall, St. Joe and Western Grove.
Although the river does not flow through Boone County, the concept is to take advantage of the traffic flow through Harrison to educate visitors and even local school students about the different aspects of the river.
Fitton displayed the floor plan of the old junior high and ways the building could be modified to accommodate a discovery center. It has almost 80,000 square feet in the main part of the school to the south of College Avenue. Each classroom would be used to exhibit a particular subject about the river and its history. At one end would be a gift shop.
The property was recently appraised, but no offers have been publicly made to buy it at the appraised price. The school district has been authorized to sell it for the best offer.
A lead organization is key. Without one the idea can't move forward, Fitton said.
"Somebody's got to operate it. It can be the CATPC. It could be the city. It could be a non-profit. But, right now, we don't have anybody stepping forward," he said
"It seems to me that in terms of what something like this could do to the economy of not only Harrison, but the whole region, is probably more significant than anything I've seen the last 10 years that I've been here. And that's kind of the business you guys are in. So, I thought, hey, I'll come talk to you and see what you think," Fitton continued.
"Obviously no one would want to take this on unless we can put the funding together initially to cover all of the startup costs and get it going," Fitton said. Based on conservative numbers, he said he didn't think it would take long for the center to create cash flow.
Whoever says they are going to take ownership should move forward only after getting the money up front. "If you can't find the initial capital you don't want to do this," Fitton warned. He estimated the project would require $2.5 to $3 million in start-up capital.
"I think it's safe to say this is in our wheelhouse as far as an attraction and that sort of thing," said Matt Bell, CATPC director.
"Financial commitments, that's a big chunk of money and we don't obviously have that, but I'd say we're engaged in hearing more," Bell said. "We're not in the game of operating businesses. We are in it for promotion and advertising tourist destinations. So, that brings us into it. I think there could be a unique opportunity to partner. I would be hesitant to say we're going to own and operate this facility... Now, the promotion and commercialization of it would be us."
A comparison was made between Harrison and Manhattan, Kansas, in that the latter town houses a discovery center dedicated to the Flint Hills even though the city isn’t technically in the Flint Hills. It does, however, have significant traffic and people learn about the Flint Hills and might visit the area.
In other business the commission members approved the reappointment of Phillip Wood to the commission. The matter will go before the Harrison City Council for final approval. The 2020 budget was approved. The Parks and Recreation report was given by Chuck Eddington and the Chamber of Commerce report was given by Bob Largent. Commission members approved the operating statement and the list of delinquent taxes.
The commission will not meet in December. The next meeting will be held Jan. 23, 2020.