Construction could start next month at the new home of the American Museum of Science and Energy at Main Street Oak Ridge, a federal official said Monday.
But much of the work will be inside the facility, and it may not be visible from outside the building, said John Shewairy, assistant manager for administration in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office.
AMSE is relocating to space that will be renovated in a two-story building that once housed a Sears Roebuck store next to JCPenney at what is now Main Street Oak Ridge. That planned move is part of an agreement that was signed by the city and DOE in December. Under that agreement, the 17-acre AMSE site was to be transferred from the U.S. Department of Energy to the City of Oak Ridge.
The city is, in turn, transferring the AMSE property in two phases to TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC. That company was set up by RealtyLink, the developer of Main Street Oak Ridge at the former Oak Ridge Mall.
The southernmost 7.44 acres of the AMSE site have already been transferred to TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC, which has requested a rezoning that could allow that parcel to be used by retailers, restaurants, or groceries, or for office space or multi-family development.
It’s not clear if AMSE’s move from its current 54,000-square-foot building on South Tulane Avenue to 18,000 square feet at Main Street Oak Ridge will be complete by the end of the year.
“The timeline for construction, moving, and the opening date are still under development,” Shewairy said in a written response to questions from Oak Ridge Today. “There are a lot of moving parts. We intend to continue operating AMSE at its current location until the new space is ready, however.”
Earlier, it hadn’t been clear if the relocated museum missions would still be referred to as the American Museum of Science and Energy.
But on Monday, Shewairy said DOE intends to maintain the AMSE name.
It’s not clear what the new space will include, what hours it might operate, and how many staff members might work there.
“The Department is currently working with Gerard Hilferty and Associates, the consultant who’s been working on the K-25 museum, but details haven’t been finalized,” Shewairy said.
The Oak Ridge Office manager is serving as lead coordinator for the project among the various DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration entities in Oak Ridge, and he also serves as DOE’s point of contact with the City of Oak Ridge and National Park Service, Shewairy said. The ORNL Site Office is closely involved and remains responsible for operating the current museum on South Tulane Avenue, Shewairy said.
Asked about continued involvement by DOE contractors, Shewairy responded, “Our contractor partners have been an invaluable contributor to the AMSE, and we have no reason to believe this won’t continue, especially in the area of public education and outreach.”
Oak Ridge Today has previously reported that most of AMSE’s funding comes from three DOE sites in Oak Ridge: East Tennessee Technology Park, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Y-12 National Security Complex. In Fiscal Year 2015, they gave $1.5 million to the museum. Officials have said the museum’s operating and labor costs have been as high as $1.7 million to $1.8 million per year.
Once it’s finished, the renovated space at Main Street Oak Ridge will be provided by TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC to the city at no cost for 15 years. That means no rent, utilities, or maintenance. The build-out cost of the former Sears space has previously been estimated at about $1.8 million.
The city will, in turn, sublease that former Sears space to DOE at no charge for 15 years.
Plans had called for including a temporary visitor center for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The National Park Service’s visitor center and offices are now located at AMSE.
The park, which includes Oak Ridge, was formally established in November 2015, and planning is still under way. The National Park Service announced in June that it was moving from AMSE to the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge in October. There had been some expectation that the National Park Service would co-locate with AMSE at Main Street Oak Ridge. It’s not clear if that remains a possibility at some point in the future.
AMSE has been considered one of the top tourist attractions in the Knoxville area, and it attracts about 65,000 visitors per year. Among other activities, AMSE displays scientific exhibits and historic photos; hosts community presentations, events, and speeches; and helps tell the story of Oak Ridge, a city built during the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II. AMSE is also the starting point for bus tours of historic sites on the federal government’s Oak Ridge Reservation, and it has hosted the National Park Service visitor center.
The December 2016 agreement allowing the transfer of the current AMSE property to the city and then to TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC had been approved by federal officials, unanimously approved by the Oak Ridge City Council, and then signed in late December by the U.S. Department of Energy and City of Oak Ridge.
The current AMSE building has been home to the museum for about four decades, since the mid-1970s. It could eventually be demolished to allow for new construction.
Before the AMSE property transfer, RealtyLink had said it was concerned that any development of the museum property that competed with Main Street Oak Ridge could jeopardize its 58-acre open-air mixed-use town center at the former mall site. Eight new stores have opened at Main Street Oak Ridge since mid-June, after the AMSE property was transferred from DOE to the city. The new stores are Dick’s Sporting Goods, Electronic Express, maurices, PetSmart, Rack Room Shoes, rue21, T.J.Maxx, and Ulta.
DOE has said the current AMSE building is “over-sized” and “operationally challenged,” and the property transfer will save more than $2 million in deferred maintenance costs at the museum and greatly reduce operating expenses.
The exhibit space at AMSE occupies about 15,000 square feet of the current building, not including the museum lobby.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Do you appreciate this story or our work in general? If so, please consider a monthly subscription to Oak Ridge Today. See our Subscribe page here. Thank you for reading Oak Ridge Today.
Copyright 2017 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.