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Vision and cooperation behind many projects

How is it that so much is going on at one time in Meridian?
The new $20-million Performing Arts and Educational Conference Center project is under construction downtown. The performance arts portion will be housed in a restored 1890 grand opera house, while the 1891 Marks-Rothenberg Department Store next door is being renovated into a conference center that will be operated by Mississippi State University (MSU).

In March, the city is opening a $7-million parking garage downtown next to the arts and education centers. The parking garage is designed to look like a series of buildings from the turn of the century, allowing it to blend into the fabric of the historic downtown.

The city is working to turn the Threefoot Building, a 14-story art deco facility that opened in 1929, into a hotel. And plans are under way for new museums and parks to be incorporated into the overall downtown redevelopment plan that will honor the German Jewish immigrants who built Meridian, the contributions of African Americans and the legacy of Meridian’s most famous son, Jimmy Rodgers, “the Father of Country Music.” One of the parks will be dedicated to the three young civil rights workers who were slain in the 1960s.

There is already a significant amount of both upscale and moderate housing downtown, and more is on the way.

“There are many efforts currently ongoing to improve Meridian, and they all weave together,” says Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith. “We have worked hard to craft a vision, and as a community have been successful in doing that.”
Smith credited the Riley Foundation with “allowing us to dream.” The Riley Foundation, formed by the physicians who formerly owned Riley Hospital, donated $10 million to the Riley project. That donation was made as a challenge grant, with the matching funds put together in about 18 months.

Still another piece of the puzzle is that Meridian has seen a surge in sales tax collections. “What has carried us over the past seven years has been the re-emergence of Meridian’s dominance in regional retail,” Smith said. “A 28% increase in sales tax revenues has allowed us to invest in imaginative projects. Downtown is just one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is affordable housing. We have secured a $17.6-million Hope VI project that will replace several of the older housing projects.”

The Hope VI project will include rent-to-own homes, as well as small multiple family complexes. The density of housing will be much less than with the previous projects. Another piece of the puzzle is legislation that was passed to allow the city to offer assistance to employees with first-home purchases.

Smith said the efforts of MSU and the Stennis Institute for Government have also been critical in helping formulate an overall master plan for revitalization of not just downtown Meridian, but the entire town. And all these efforts dovetail nicely with the work of the East Mississippi Business Development Corp. to attract new industrial and distribution jobs to Meridian.

“You can’t focus on any one dimension,” Smith said. “You need to have a broad enough vision to see it all. It takes many voices and ideas to make so much happen at one time. There are many efforts, and what they all do is all weave together. We are finally learning that we are so much stronger together than when we are not.”

Smith’s efforts recently received national recognition when he was named the 2005 winner of the prestigious Local Arts Leadership Award from the United States Conference of Mayors and Americans for the Arts. Smith was scheduled to receive his national award at a gala luncheon January 18 as part of the mid-winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Smith joins some of the best known mayors in the country in receiving the award. Previous mayoral winners are Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, Mayor Marc Morial of New Orleans, Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, Mayor Vincent Cianci of Providence, Mayor Wellington Webb of Denver, Mayor Sharpe James of Newark, Mayor Bart Peterson of Indianapolis and Mayor Martin O’Malley of Baltimore.

Smith was nominated for the honor by four separate individuals and organizations, including U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center and the Meridian Council for the Arts. Nominators cited his broad involvement in the arts, including development of the Riley Education and Performing Arts Center and the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center, the “Around Town Carousels Abound” public art program, the city’s commitment to build a parking garage to support the downtown arts district, involving the Urban Land Institute in making recommendations for museum and other arts-related activities downtown and his personal involvement with the Meridian Little Theatre, the Meridian Symphony, the city’s cultural affairs program and the many festivals and arts events the city sponsors or supports.
Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writers regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal.

Contact her via e-mail at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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