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Hands On! and Gray Fossil Site: A natural fit for education, tourism

Johnson City Press • Apr 28, 2018 at 8:15 AM

Many who work, live and play in downtown Johnson City were dismayed when Hands On! Regional Museum made plans in 2016 to leave its longtime home.

The children’s interactive museum will close May 19 and move to East Tennessee State University’s property at the Gray Fossil Site and Natural Museum off Tennessee Highway 75 near Daniel Boone High School.

We stated in 2015 when Hands On! leaders announced they were looking outside Johnson City for a new home that we believed downtown was where the museum belongs. We still do.

Hands On! has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with downtown since its opening 31 years ago. It was a major early factor in downtown redevelopment, and as downtown grew around it, the museum’s success grew, too.

But the museum’s digs in two aged retail buildings on East Main Street always have been lacking. For more than two decades, Hands On! leaders have searched for better accommodations.

The Johnson City Commission went the extra mile in 2009 when it pledged to donate $1 million and city-owned land adjacent to the Johnson City Public Library for the construction of a new Hands On! Museum. Lots of other possible downtown locations were tossed around over the years, but none ever took hold in the minds of board members.

So when ETSU contracted to have the Hands On! staff run the fossil site’s Natural History Museum in Gray in 2016, the handwriting was on the wall.

It’s especially ironic that Hands On! is leaving just when downtown is hitting its stride, but if Hands On! had to leave downtown, the Gray Fossil Site was the place to go.

Together, what will be known as “Hands On! Discovery Center” and the fossil site can offer an educational experience for schoolchildren like no other. Both are key to Washington County’s tourism potential, and being a short drive from Interstates 26 and 81 is a huge plus.

Yes, we’re still sorry to see Hands On! leave downtown Johnson City, but this new partnership is a good fit. Hands On! Discovery is set to open June 14.

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