Jim Clayton outlines museum plans

Nick Della VolpeFeature, Inside 640

Entrepreneur Jim Clayton talked with Knoxville City Council on Thursday about his plans for a legacy $150 million science and discovery museum to be built on a 12-acre tract currently occupied by the Knoxville Police Department headquarters.


The city has three parcels just beyond the existing coliseum and auditorium, totaling some 12 acres, that it is willing to make available for the facility. Aside from the city’s donation of the land, the museum facility would be fully funded and endowed by the Clayton Foundation as well as Jim Clayton and his family. The building envisioned would be 80- to 100,000 square feet in size with a price tag of $100 million, backed by an additional $50 million as an operating fund.

Clayton said the project money has already been placed in a bank. Jim and his family have been exploring this idea for over a decade and are excited to proceed. Clayton’s fiancée, Michelle Witt, assisted him in Thursday’s presentation to the council.

Timing: The proposed museum project would have to first go through a 6- to 8-month geotechnical testing and design/engineering phase, vetting the site, before it can proceed further.

David Brace, the city’s director of public works, indicated that exploratory phase would begin once the city enters into a Site Development Agreement with Clayton, expected to be placed before city council by late July/early August of this year. That preliminary agreement would confirm the availability of the city land once the more comprehensive proposal is completed by the Clayton team, projected to be finished by mid-2019. The site already has in excess of 2,000 parking spaces in the city garages and easy access to the interstate for visitors.

Purpose: Clayton expressed his desire to locate the facility near East Knoxville, where he hopes it could help inspire disadvantaged youth (among others) to learn about science and technology, leading to the jobs of the future. Clayton related his own experiences as a young man working for a utility in Memphis being taken under the wing of electrical engineer, Bill Westfall, who inspired him to pursue a career in electrical engineering, and who helped/nudged him to enroll in college to do so.

Clayton also talked about his love of flying and how the museum might have some aeronautical aspects on display, as well as information about robotics, mineral development, lighting/electricity, gemstones and other technical and ecological subjects. Having visited a number of other facilities around the country and in Europe, he feels it would be important to have hands-on activities for the visitors and an atmosphere of fun to the museum. He envisions other local companies and entities like TVA participating in creating exhibits for display.

Public Safety Building: That building, which houses police administrative offices and the city court is expected to be razed as part of the project. The mayor has previously announced in her budget for this new fiscal year plans to relocate both the police force and the fire departments to a brand-new safety complex to possibly be located in the Lonsdale community on a portion of the property currently owned by Knoxville College trustees. But that is for a future decision, involving council and public input. In the meantime, the city may need to relocate the police and court operation to a temporary site, to enable the museum project to get underway.

East Knoxville … Speculation: Nobody said it, but the thought logically occurs that the temporary police and court headquarters could end up in East Towne Mall, where everyone knows there is plenty of space (perhaps 100,000 vacant square feet). That is especially true with Sears soon joining Dillard’s and JCPenney in leaving the retail venue. The mall site has plenty of parking and easy access to I-640 and I-40 to move the cruisers where they are needed. It could also be argued that a police headquarters could enhance the attractiveness of the mall site for other retail. Bad guys usually don’t hang around police cars. So, hey, maybe Knoxville can kill two birds with one stone.

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