McNairy County Science Tourism and STEAM Education

Selmer and Adamsville, Tennessee

McNairy County is located in heart of Southwest Tennessee along the US Highway 45 corridor. Selmer, the county seat, has a unique asset in the Planetarium located at McNairy Central High School (MCHS) that was constructed in 1969 as part of the space science program. The county is also home to the Coon Creek Science Center (CCSC) near Adamsville that is one of the largest and oldest paleo fossil sites in the United States. At Coon Creek, the University of Tennessee Martin at Selmer hosts laboratory and classroom space through their Geology program and experienced faculty that facilitate and support CCSC field experiences. As West Tennessee’s only county with these types of science-related facilities, McNairy County leaders saw the opportunity to enhance both assets and leverage their location to create science-related tourism economic development and new Science, Technology, Engineering Arts, and Math (STEAM) programming.

In 2016, McNairy County community leaders identified improvements to the MCHS Planetarium as the community’s top priority and first short-term goal during TNECD-sponsored Asset-Based Planning. Restoration of the facility was underway through local fundraising efforts led by high school students and community leaders. McNairy County leaders saw the opportunity to complete the restoration through TNECD Asset Enhancement Grant (AEG) funding since new paint, lighting and flooring had been installed and the dome was being professionally cleaned. In 2017, AEG grant funding was awarded that made the Planetarium fully functional. TNECD funding provided a much-needed computer control system and a new projector, LED lighting, seating to fully equip the facility, and new promotion resources to market the facility. In fall 2018, the MCHS Planetarium opened with much fanfare as a newly renovated education venue and digital experience center that offered STEAM programs, meeting and training space for organizations and businesses, and serves as the county’s first science-based tourism asset.

The Coon Creek site, located near Adamsville, is one of the most prominent fossil sites of its kind in the world. In 2017, McNairy Chamber of Commerce and tourism leaders requested a second TNECD AEG to enhance the tourism asset. Improvements include the development of new Paleotourism programming and marketing, improvements at the Coon Creek Science Center visitor field collection facilities and additions to lab space at the UT Martin Selmer Center. In 2018, funding was awarded. The new Paloetourism programming complements STEAM education that is underway through the Planetarium project. This TNECD investment supported the efforts of local tourism and higher education leaders to preserve a true archeological jewel and add assets to McNairy County for year-round programming.

Science Tourism and Steam Education

Both AEG-funded projects position McNairy County as a premier destination for science-related tourism. McNairy County tourism leaders have worked to promote the Planetarium and to plan and host many STEAM-related programs for high school, middle school and elementary students that has made the project sustainable. Tourism leaders organize programming and pay for staffing from student viewing fees that the economic development organization collects to cover these expenses. This cooperation between the county, board of education and tourism organizations is a best practice that has allowed the Planetarium to operate smoothly in its first nine months.

In the first year of opening the Planetarium facility, project leaders project that direct attendance will be 5,000+ students and family members, tourists, community groups, professional organizations and businesses who will utilize the space by attending public programs. The Planetarium is well on its way to reach these visitation numbers; since its grand opening in October 2018, the facility hosted over 3,700 local and regional student visitors and has also been used as a showcase for industry leaders to promote the community’s ability to teach STEAM skills to prospective employees.

In 2020, the Coon Creek Science Center and UT Martin Selmer Center facilities will open and increase site usage by the general public, school groups, civic groups and others interested in Paleotourism. Improvements will attract visitors to the area and enhance tourism economic development by adding a new destination attraction. Projected annual visitation numbers include 3,000 – 5,000 in the first year of operation. The potential for experts and tourists interested in Paleo Geology and Archeology to visit both facilities and stay in McNairy County for extended study is tremendous.

In the coming years, the Planetarium, Coon Creek Science Center, and UT Martin at Selmer will be key community assets that create new tourism revenues and STEAM education and training programs that help to develop a qualified employee base to support the jobs needed in the community. The McNairy County Economic Development marketing strategy is built upon the production of the highest quality goods and products. New STEAM education offerings, along with workforce development services and science-based tourism, align with the county’s brand promise by creating new venues and programs that provide high-quality science-based learning opportunities for youth, adults, employers and visitors.

Collaboration and Partnerships

A major objective of the Asset-Based Planning program is to engage community partners and leverage local expertise, assets, and resources. The McNairy Planetarium project did just that by creating an opportunity to develop the workforce of youth and adults interested in science-based careers. The Coon Creek Science Center project is leveraging UT Martin faculty expertise and facilities to enhance lab and field study assets and create innovative science-based tourism programming. Both projects have engaged impressive numbers of project partners.

The McNairy County Chamber of Commerce is the lead economic development partner that fulfills several roles for both projects. The Chamber's Tourism Director and staff participate in all phases of development and implementation of both projects including grant management, designing and implementing annual marketing plans, and leading local tourism promotions for both facilities. Tourism staff also coordinate all Planetarium programming, facility scheduling, staffing and collection of event fees. Duties include educating local businesses about the opportunities associated with the Planetarium, the Coon Creek Science Center and UT Martin Selmer Campus, as well as soliciting feedback about the impact of each facility. As the county’s tourism agency, the Chamber operates the McNairy County Visitor Center as the first point of contact for tourists. At this location and the Chamber office, staff and volunteers provide information about the Planetarium and CCSC.

The McNairy Planetarium project engaged McNairy County, the Board of Education, and MCHS. The Town of Selmer supported the project and promotes the Planetarium at downtown events. Arts in McNairy supports the Planetarium through educational and arts-related programs and provides marketing assistance through social media. McNairy County Tourism staff, high school faculty and community volunteers lead educational and community programming and assist in operating equipment and maintaining the facility. Regional partners include the University of Tennessee Martin who plan to offer courses, workshops, and field collection outings at CCSC and the Selmer campus. The Tourism Association of Southwest Tennessee is assisting in marketing the Planetarium through tourism associations, publications and regional members and is committed to participate in upcoming marketing efforts for the Coon Creek Science Center.

CCSC is enhancing the conservation and preservation goals of UTM and creating the opportunity to form new partnerships among numerous education agencies through joint field and lab-based programming. Both the CCSC and UT Martin Selmer Campus enhancements are engaging additional university faculty, staff and sponsors.

Community and Economic Impact

The new McNairy Planetarium has increased the number and size of educational programs, community events and science-related tourism that have shown immediate economic impact. The facility provides a superb experience for STEAM education and science-related tourism and business development, and the facility is considered a top workforce and economic development asset for the county and region. Similar results will be available from the Coon Creek Science Center and UT Martin Selmer Center after the first year of operations in 2020. From October of 2018 to June of 2019, McNairy Planetarium events, attendance and revenue totals include

Faculty and Volunteers Engaged 455
High School Student and Faculty Events 44
Middle School Student and Faculty Events 9
Elementary School Student and Faculty Events 10
College and University Student and Faculty Events 1
Business Events 2
Community Events 9
Tourism Events 19
High School Student and Faculty Participants 1274
Middle School Student and Faculty Participants 341
Elementary School Student and Faculty Participants 527
College and University Student and Faculty Participants  50
Business Event Participants 45
Community Event Participants 259
Tourism Visitors 1220
Program Fee Revenues $4,600

Project Funding

2017 TNECD Asset Enhancement Grant and Match (Planetarium computer control unit, projector, cove lighting, dome lighting, sound, electrical, internet connection, black lighting and seating) $52,500
Student Service Projects and Community Fundraising (Planetarium painting, flooring, dome cleaning, internet connection, electrical improvements, and teaching podium) $20,134
McNairy Chamber of Commerce In-kind Support (Planetarium facility expenses, faculty and staffing)  
2018 TNECD Asset Enhancement Grant and Match (Coon Creek Science Center/UTM Selmer field collection, preparation lab and education facilities expansion) $52,500
McNairy Chamber of Commerce In-kind Support (Planetarium programming, staffing and management, marketing and promotions)  
TNECD Sponsored Asset-Based Planning  (Value of community assessment, facilitation, priority identification) $1,866
TOTAL PROJECT FUNDING (Projections for local investments, grants and in-kind funding) $127,000

Project Leadership and Partners

McNairy County Economic Development and Chamber of Commerce – Tourism Director – Project Contact
McNairy County Government
McNairy County Board of Education
McNairy Central High School
Town of Selmer
Town of Adamsville
Arts in McNairy
The University of Tennessee at Martin
Tourism Association of Southwest Tennessee
Faculty and Community Volunteers
Business and Industry Supporters
Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

For more information contact the McNairy County Chamber of Commerce.

TNECD Asset Enhancement Grant Program

The Asset-Based Planning program was developed through the Rural Task Force to assist distressed counties with strategic planning and development of short-term goals that will address the causes of distress: unemployment rate, per capita income, and poverty rate. TNECD and the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service worked with communities to develop action-oriented goals based on the communities’ assets. Following that process, TNECD ensured that the communities had the resources to accomplish its goals and created the Asset Enhancement Grant provided through the Tennessee Rural Economic Opportunity Act. The Asset-Based Planning program is now a part of the ThreeStar program.

For more information visit TNECD Community and Rural Development.