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Indiana Dinosaur Museum nears opening after years in the making

South Bend Chocolate Company founder Mark Tarner is now about a month away from his June 20 goal for opening his new Indiana Dinosaur Museum.

Since selling his first South Bend Chocolate Company products 23 years ago, Tarner has built the business into 17 stores in three states. Over that time Tarner also grew fascinated with paleontology, finding thousands of dinosaur fossils during annual digs in Montana.

Tarner has said COVID nearly wiped out the candy business and the museum, but forgivable federal loans, along with strong support from South Bend Mayor James Mueller and Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, saved the project.

On a sprawling site near the interchange of U.S. 31 and Lincolnway, west of the South Bend airport, Tarner has built more than just a museum. There will be six attractions: the museum, his candy production facility, a South Bend Public House bar and restaurant, a Continental Divide park, and a South Bend Farms market.

I asked Tarner whether there’s a theme that ties the six attractions together, or whether he thinks there needs to be one.

“It is an incredible question and it is the question,” Tarner said. “But when you go to a city, let’s say you go to New York, Broadway is very different from Central Park. Central Park is very different from Wall Street. The Hudson is very different from the East River. You want a diversity of things that you can pick from and I think it’s going to work just because it’s unique, and just like any other attraction, you’ll take from that what you can get.”

One of the first things you notice about the campus and its buildings is its massive size. There’s 100,000 square feet under roof on 90 acres.

“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s not just the dinosaur museum and the chocolate factory going in,” said Melissa Florian, one of the many employees scrambling to get everything ready. “We have South Bend Farms which is going to have a market attached to it. We have the South Bend Public House, and this one actually has a stage and outdoor seating that’s really, really cool.”

Florian says the South Bend Farms market will sell produce grown both on site and by area farmers. It also will house the relocated Studebagels.

Since the museum is incorporated as a nonprofit, Florian said they’re still looking for volunteers, for the museum and for handling animals.

Out back, they’ve recreated a miniature version of the nearby Lydick Bog, and their trail system eventually will connect to the bog, a low-lying swampy area.

Inside the musuem, Tarner showed me the stars of this show, the dinosaurs. There are two huge models of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and in the gift shop, there's a T-Rex head below large words on the wall that read, “BUY OR DIE.”

“What I wanted to do is bring dinosaurs alive and I think we’ve done that,” Tarner said. “There are, I think, 80 sculptures in here and it’s by two artists, Mike Trcic and Charlie McGrady, and Mike did all the work on Jurassic Park. He was a sculptor, a puppeteer and he sold it to me. It was sitting in a warehouse for 30 years and it had a little cut in it, a defect, and that’s on display. It’s really a neat piece.”

Tarner says he wants the museum to be serious and educational, but also fun. He hopes visitors will come away with a better understanding of nature and time, and the tiny role we play in it all.

“We’re part of a greater whole. It’s a story that keeps unfolding that we’re all a part of but we just can’t see it in millions of years, we see it in our lifetime, 80 years. Turtles live longer than we do and it’s kind of humbling.”

Tarner said there are about 30 dinosaur museums around the country and he’s visited most of them, taking a lot of notes.

“Museums are kind of an older institution and they have one foot in the Victorian era, and they’re kind of designed by academics. Ours is different. It’s designed for the age of the internet. It’s Instagrammable. You can take your picture. And there are a lot of comparisons to the past and the present, so it’s an exciting thing because it’s a museum that I built for me and I wasn’t the best student in science.”

Another noticeable feature throughout the museum is the large lettering on the walls. Tarner says retailing chocolate taught him the importance of labeling.

“When you’re in a grocery store with 2,000 other products, your label makes you stand out. And then once you buy the label you buy the quality. So we designed this like a package. It’s easy to read, it’s clear, and its quick and to the point, almost like ad copy. What’s the central message?”

He’s especially excited to display one of his own most valuable finds, the skull of a yet-to-be-identified sauropod, the long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs believed to be the largest land animals ever.

“We don’t know what it is. We took it to a convention and probably 100 paleontologists looked at it and they don’t know what it is. That's kind of great. It’s great for me, it’s great for the museum, and it’s also great for South Bend because you travel to urban areas all over the world to see the Mona Lisa, to see Sue the T Rex in Chicago, and this will give us a very special thing that will turn this museum from the best small dinosaur museum in the country to one of the best ones in the world.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).