Meridian — The Victorian-era Grand Opera House here, quiet and dark since 1927, is now alive with activity as a renovation project to restore the old structure to its original 1890s grandeur is under way.
Construction will be completed by May 2006, and a reopening is planned for the end of summer, probably in August, according to executive director Dennis Sankovich.
It has taken both private and public money and the involvement of Mississippi State University (MSU) to make the $31-million renovation possible.
The Riley Foundation, which awarded the project a $10-million grant in 1999, has just announced that it is donating an additional $2.1 million. When it opens, the opera house and two additional components will be known as the Riley Center.
These components are the adjacent Marks-Rothenberg and Newberry Buildings.
“It is anticipated that the Riley Center will draw 40,000 to 60,000 people to downtown Meridian on an annual basis, generating a total economic impact in the region of $4.7 million and supporting 59 regional jobs,” Sankovich said.
When it opens, the Riley Center, located at 5th Street and 22nd Avenue in historic downtown Meridian, will not only offer performing arts presentations but have facilities for educational programs, major conferences and meetings and be a renewed downtown center for social interaction and cultural enrichment, Sankovich said.
The Marks-Rothenberg building was formerly the Mercantile Department Store. (A branch in Jackson was called the Emporium.) A meeting and conference facility with a total of 30,000 square feet will be located inside the building. The facility will have multi-use capabilities and all of the facilities can be used together or in varying combinations to offer many different types of presentations and functions.
The Newberry Building will include a loading dock, lobby and 2,500 square feet of multi-purpose space. The Riley Center will also have a fully functional TV studio that will be able to broadcast from the opera house. And there will be audio-video capabilities.
Project architects are:
• Marks-Rothenberg Building: Pryor and Morrow of Columbus, in association with R. J. Heisenbottle of Coral Gables, Fla.
• Grand Opera House and Newberry Building: Martinez and Johnson of Washington, D.C.
To provide parking, the city of Meridian has built a $7-million, 450-car facility.
Building an endowment
One condition of the Riley Foundation grant agreement was that Mississippi State University would own the Riley Center. MSU agreed to accept the condition if the the Institutions of Higher Learning board approved. The board of trustees approved and the arrangement was confirmed in March 2001.
Due to its historical significance, an endowment goal of $5 million was established, with the intent of using interest gained from the corpus for future repairs, programming, maintenance, equipment and operating needs.
A lead gift of $2.5 million was received from the Hardin Foundation. Another $1.7 million was given by private groups and individuals. Among other funding for the Riley Center:
• U.S. Department of the Interior, $600,000
• U.S. Department of Commerce, $3 million
• Lauderdale County, $4 million
• U.S. Housing and Urban Development, $3.6 million
• State of Mississippi bonds, $200,000
• Mississippi Arts Commission, $400,000
The education component
Sankovich stressed the importance of the Riley Center for educating young people in Meridian and throughout the surrounding region. This starts with grades K-12 and goes up to college students from freshmen to seniors.
“The technical capabilities of the Riley Center will serve as a focal point for the joint broadcast communications degree program offered by Meridian Community College and the MSU-Meridian Campus,” Sankovich said.
MSU’s Meridian campus has some 800 students and is located on Highway 19, across from the community college.
Sankovich also plans for the center to provide specialized programming for targeted segments of the community such as children, families and senior citizens.
Through a series of “discovery” performing arts events, Sankovich said, children will be engaged in a professional arts experience which will then be used as a tool by teachers, who will receive specialized training from MSU, “to weave the arts as an integral part of the school curriculum.”
Sankovich envisions musical events featuring blues, popular, jazz, gospel and classical music artists, as well as performances of ethnic and international cultural ensembles.
“Tour groups, church groups and residents of senior living facilities can travel to downtown from throughout the region to shop, have lunch and see a fine performing arts presentation, all for a reasonable price,” Sankovich said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.
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