The sign in Fort Discovery's science store Thursday said it all: "Everything Must Go."
And go it did.
As visitors snapped up everything from plasma balls to plastic dinosaurs --- all 70 percent off --- staffers at the National Science Center's signature attraction prepared to close its doors today for the last time.
"We've had our share of hugs and tears over this," said Rob Dennis, the science center's chief executive officer. "Change is difficult for everybody."
The organization, which opened Fort Discovery in April 1997, announced a restructuring plan in October that includes moving to a new headquarters in Washington, D.C., and closing Fort Discovery.
The pending move, Dennis said, offers the nonprofit organization and its partner, the Army, a chance to refocus on its core mission to increase the math and science proficiency of U.S. students.
"We're working with industry partners to have office space in Washington, as well as our Army partner, to make sure we have the resources we need up there," he said.
The closure of Fort Discovery leaves in limbo the fate of nearly 250 exhibits at the 130,000-square-foot science and technology center.
"The lion's share, about 80 percent, are owned by the state of Georgia," Dennis said. "What will happen to them is under negotiation right now. We mainly want to make sure we find an appropriate place for everything. We are simply the custodians."
Some exhibits already have new homes, including one on nuclear science that was moved to the Ruth Patrick Science Center in Aiken.
Fort Discovery's shutdown means that most of its remaining employees will be let go.
"Over the years, we've had a high of about 40 employees," he said. "We're now down to 17, most of whom are part-timers."
On Thursday, steady crowds of visitors fanned out among exhibits that offer youngsters insight into fiber-optics, X-rays, gravity, motion and other fields. The hourly lightning show and the echo tube were as popular as ever. So was the gift shop.
"Believe it or not, we've sold down a lot of stuff already," said the store manager, Jeanette Nelson. "The bigger items, telescopes and binoculars, went quick. But we still have a lot of things left."
Today's hours of operation will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., after which the attraction will close for good.
"There will still be things going on in the building, but that will be the final day for the visitors," Dennis said, adding that negotiations remain under way to sell the site for redevelopment by a new owner.
Potential buyers have emerged in recent months, he said, but he could not identify the parties involved.
"I do think we'll go to closing in the first quarter of the year, based on how things look right now," he said. "It looks very promising."