This week marks the opening of Central Iowa’s newest attraction, as the $12.5 million Iowa Hall of Pride opens to the public at the beginning of state tournament season, with thousands of sports fans preparing to pour into Greater Des Moines.

“I feel like a proud dad,” said Director Jack Lashier, who along with the Iowa High School Athletic Association has been working for nine years to make the project become a reality.

The 26,000-square-foot facility, which occupies the south side of Hy-Vee Hall at the Iowa Events Center, boasts 26 interactive exhibits, 30 plasma television screens and video interviews with more than 100 Iowa legends, including athletes, musicians, scientists and business executives.

“This is not only an entertaining experience, but an educational experience,” said Lashier, the IHSAA’s former special projects coordinator.

A ribbon cutting will be held at the Iowa Hall of Pride at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, the second day of the four-day state wrestling tournament. Between that tournament and the boys’ and girls’ state basketball tournaments in March at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that more than 200,000 athletes, parents, coaches, students and other sports fans will visit Greater Des Moines and the Iowa Events Center.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” Lashier said. But staff members and construction crews are pushing ahead toward the scheduled opening date, training volunteers and putting the finishing touches on exhibits, artifact displays, interactive games and murals by Iowa artists.

“I think it’s going to be one of our best attractions in the area,” said Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It certainly exceeded our expectations. The few people who have been able to preview the facility have walked away in awe.”

The 96-seat Iowa Experience Theater features a 12-minute film, narrated by opera singer and Iowa native Simon Estes, which portrays scenes from across Iowa, including each sanctioned boys’ and girls’ sport, and closes with video of an Iowa soldier returning home. Lashier found a room of volunteers in tears last week after viewing it.

“We wanted to set a tone and make you feel good about Iowa,” he said.

Visitors can explore the hall’s various exhibits – wellness, wrestling, choir, volleyball, swimming, boys’ and girls’ basketball, track and field, orchestra, media, football, baseball, softball, cheerleading, debate and speech – which includes footage from competitions, memorabilia, interviews, trivia and interactive games.

The wrestling exhibit will include six hours worth of interviews with Dan Gable, video highlights from past state wrestling championships and a tribute to the state’s 12 four-time state champions. It also includes one of the hall’s several interactive activities, as visitors can compete against each other to score a match by correctly identifying various wrestling maneuvers.

“If you’re a wrestling fan, you’ll be in heaven,” Lashier said.

Each visitor will be given a Smart Card with 15 “invisible clicks,” which can be used at the wrestling activity or several others throughout the hall. At the baseball and softball exhibit, people can step up to the plate and, using three-dimensional goggles mounted to an umpire’s mask, decide instantaneously if a pitch is a ball or a strike.

“The technology that they’ve put into this thing is just incredible,” Edwards said.

The Iowa Hall of Pride also includes a tribute to 30 Iowa heroes, with video of a touchdown by Nile Kinnick and footage of Peggy Whitson during a NASA mission. The IHSAA room features a tribute to Bernie Saggau, the former IHSAA executive director and visionary behind the Hall of Pride. The exhibit ends at a bronze sculpture of an Iowa family, titled “Real Heroes.”

“Because really, the best heroes in Iowa are the parents,” Lashier said.