Contractors working to ready attraction for its April opening

By Burk Krohe

Inside the Flint Hills Discovery Center, tarps lie on the floor, paint buckets and tool boxes sit out and workers from various contractors and sub-contractors consult each other about the exhibits they’re finishing. It’s a far cry from what the center will look like when it opens in April.

Employees from companies as distant as Boston have been working for months to build a one-of-a-kind experience for the $24.5 million project. It’s taken lots of time, research and cooperation.

The goal of the Discovery Center, as described by its mission statement, is to celebrate the diversity and depth of people’s experiences in the region and to create a sense of stewardship. It is also meant to inspire community members to experience the Flint Hills beyond the Discovery Center. The interactive exhibits on the first and second floors will be the centerpieces of that vision.

Visitors will learn about the formation of the Flint Hills, the diversity of the ecosystem (above and below ground), the role fire has played with the tallgrass prairie and the dynamics involved in settling the region.

Putting together those exhibits hasn’t happened overnight.

Randy Fink, audio visual integration manager for Boston Productions Inc. (BPI), said his team started about a year ago, installing wiring and cabling for the exhibits. BPI is responsible for a variety of multimedia aspects including audio, lighting, computer controls and various exhibits’ data.

“You can definitely spend a day, with all the information that is in here and all the exhibits,” Fink said.

Split Rock Studios, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based firm, is handling the fabrication of the exhibits, including about 1,400 graphics. Mike Rutz, a builder with Split Rock, said he started in early December. Rutz said it has taken three trips totaling about 45 days, but Split Rock’s work is almost done.

John Daugs, of Split Rock, said he spent several months on the graphics, which depict landscapes, plants and animals of the Flint Hills. The process involved several steps. First, graphic designers laid out the designs, which came from Gerar Hilferty and Associates. Then they were sent to a printer to be processed. After they were printed, Daugs got involved.

He sanded, taped off and painted the edges. Finally, he put them in place with the help of cleats on the back of the graphics and specially built frames.

Liz Petty, BPI project manager, said BPI came in early to work with the other contractors to conceptualize the exhibits in order to meet everyone’s collective vision. Extensive research on BPI’s part went into the process.

Petty said BPI took three trips last summer and fall to learn about the Flint Hills. Her team talked to an assortment of local people including ranchers, small business owners and researchers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station.

She even took part in an old-fashioned Western campout beneath the stars to see what settlers might have experienced more than 100 years ago.

“Each one of the jobs Boston Productions works on is so unique and so focused to the individual experience that it’s exciting to go and be a part of what’s going on in each little community,” Fink said.

Fink said teamwork has been extremely important, considering how many components are involved in the exhibits. He said weekly phone calls with other contractors were necessary to make sure they would function properly.

Of course, everyone favors different exhibits. Fink and Petty said the “prairie pipe organ” will be fun for kids and even adults. By pressing different buttons, visitors will be able to layer sounds from the prairie on top of each other.

Petty said “Voices of the Flint Hills” is particularly interesting.

“That’s where all of our interviews and really getting into the area and talking to the people on the ground really comes through,” Petty said.

She said the interviews were edited into clips so visitors will be able to listen about various issues facing the Flint Hills at three kiosks.

Daugs said the “Underground Forest,” an area that showcases the environment below the tall grass prairie, including life-sized models of bluestem grass root systems, will be fascinating. He also said the large stylized graphics of Flint Hills plant life on the second floor balcony will really help draw people to the exhibits.

“I like the impact when you first come in the lobby with all the cutout flowers,” Daugs said. “That really is cool.” They all agree a special experience is being created.

“Museums these days are no longer the brick and mortar places where you go and see a couple pictures and read some stuff,” Petty said.

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