Booster feat: Will Lewis & Clark be magic #3?

How will the 200th anniversary of the river launch of the Voyage of Discovery be commemorated in Charlottesville? Easy– with the unveiling this Sunday of what organizers hope will become Charlottesville's third major tourist attraction: the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center.

Not since a steam train almost moved to Charlottesville in the early 1990s has a potential economic engine given Charlottesville such a good chance to become a bit more of an overnight sensation.

The reasoning goes like this: UVA and Monticello are swell, but many folks still consider Charlottesville merely a side trip on the way to someplace else. The proposed Center might give visitors an excuse to spend the night.

"I think this will be the third big thing– even more than the train," says Center organizer Kay Slaughter. "It's a really dazzling concept– I think people will be really impressed."

Preliminary plans for the Center and its grounds have been drawn up by world-famous "green" firm William McDonough & Partners Architects, and Sue Nelson/Warren Byrd, Landscape Architects– both locally based.

"We're going to have a hands-on place," says Slaughter. "Visitors will learn by doing."

Organizers envision a sod-roofed museum, a simulated Native American village, and a simulated explorer fort at Darden Towe Park– plus a walking trail along the Rivanna River that would lead visitors to the Clark family homestead at Buena Vista farm, now owned by Center board member Clara Belle Wheeler.

"The main thrust of the Center is to be an outdoor experience," stresses Wheeler. She oughta know. In January, as part of the Voyage bicentennial (or "Bison-tennial," as some called it), Wheeler hosted a chilly nighttime bash for donors and luminaries that included filmmaker Ken Burns.

Snowfall the previous evening didn't stop her outdoor event. "Lewis & Clark didn't turn back when it snowed in the Bitterroots," says Wheeler. "They put on an extra layer."

Charlottesville boosters hope that the voyage launched by President Thomas Jefferson will add an extra layer of humans to hotels and restaurants if the Center becomes a hit.

"I answer calls from people from out of town who think we already exist," says Alexandria Searls, the Center's newly hired staff support person. "We're also hearing from a lot of schools."

For now, all the Center has is 17 acres in Darden Towe Park. The City and County, which jointly own the Park, recently donated a 40-year lease on the property.

Slaughter says that board members have been visiting Virginia history attractions such as Roanoke's Explore Park and Jamestown Festival Park. One place they couldn't go is Richmond's Valentine Riverside.

Conceived in the early '90s as a way to make Richmond's history come alive, the bold project was located on land and in buildings at the historic Tredegar Iron Works on the James River. After just a year of operations, it closed in 1995 with unpaid loans and unfulfilled attendance expectations.

Slaughter says that Center organizers have already deemed some aspects of a City-commissioned study, which portrayed the Center as a $15 million undertaking, "too ambitious."

For now, volunteers are primarily running the show. For instance, inside a barn at Darden Towe Park, youth volunteers have been building the six-ton "Discovery Virginia," a replica of Lewis and Clark's 55-foot keelboat.

Besides celebrating the 17-acre acquisition and unveiling of the architectural concepts, an event slated for Sunday, October 26, plans for "a hundred or more" children to move the unfinished boat.

"It's a big landmark– er, watermark," says Slaughter.