GRAY - With construction complete, East Tennessee State University administrators expect to accept keys to the Gray Fossil Site's visitors center this week, allowing exhibit assembly to commence in March.
Half museum and half laboratory, the 33,000-square-foot center's construction took a bit longer than anticipated, for work was scheduled to wrap up in mid-December.
"It's not uncommon in these projects," Bill Rasnick, ETSU associate vice president for physical plant, said Tuesday. "They (general contractor H.S. Williams) ran into a number of different things that maybe complicated it a little bit.
"The contractor and the designer have done an excellent job of getting it under control, and we should take possession either today (Tuesday) or by the end of the week. They'll give us all the keys, and we'll go ahead and change all the exterior locks and that sort of thing."
Exhibit builder X-Plus Inc. is scheduled to arrive March 26 to begin installing displays designed by Gallagher & Associates and murals created by artist Karen Carr for the museum portion of the facility. Rasnick said installation should take about a month.
"That has been the bigger concern - that we were delaying them, but they have been continuing to work on the exhibits at their shop in the (Washington) D.C. area.," Rasnick said.
Boston Productions will follow by installing multimedia presentations that will accompany the exhibits. Rasnick said ETSU officials would review and sign off on the presentations before installation.
Although exhibits should be complete by midsummer, administrators had not settled on an official opening date for the public to start visiting the center.
"We have talked about that some, and that's certainly not my decision, but we talked about having a soft opening in the summer and then look at maybe around the start of school having a grand opening," Rasnick said.
The start of ETSU's fall semester coincides with the Appalachian Fair a few miles from the site and the fall races at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"That would be a really nice time to have a grand opening, because you have 200,000 people from out of town here who potentially might get excited when it (the visitors center) opens," Rasnick said.
In the meantime, ETSU scientists would move some equipment into the building, Rasnick said, allowing fossil researchers to begin using the center's laboratories in the spring during dig season. As home to the Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology, the building's second level will contain labs and storage space for scientists to process and archive specimens unearthed at the site.
"Typically, they don't start doing a lot of their fieldwork until the weather warms back up and dries out, so an April or May time frame would be what I would think," Rasnick said.
Laboratory cases were included in construction, Rasnick said, but ETSU officials still had to order office furniture and some specialty laboratory equipment.
The center was funded by an $8 million federal transportation grant, and ETSU has been working to garner about $2 million in matching funds.
Tennessee Department of Transportation road crews discovered the site in 2000 as they widened and rerouted portions of Tenn. Highway 75 near Daniel Boone High School.
Estimated at 4.5 million to 7 million years old, the Gray Fossil Site is the sole Miocene Epoch site in this part of the country. It is home to one of the world's richest deposits of fossilized tapirs. Other finds have included species of red panda, sloth, rhinoceros, bear, elephant, saber-toothed cat and alligator.