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Long anticipated MSU Riley Center opens in September

Meridian — The long-awaited MSU Riley Center opens to fanfare and anticipation September 8, kicking off a star-filled concert season. The $25 million project is in the finishing stages and getting ready for this fall’s grand opening. The facility includes the renovated Grand Opera House and adjoining Marks Rothenberg and Newbery buildings in downtown Meridian.

Over 30 events are scheduled for the first season. Executive director Dennis Sankovich expects 600 guests for the gala event and 900 for the first concert.

“We feel wonderful about it,” he said. “The project has been moving steadily along. We ran into some things but you always have that with large construction projects.”

He said it’s great being in the center of downtown Meridian. “It’s a business opportunity for the community plus it means a lot to the heart and soul of the community,” he said. “It will breath new life into this community in a number of ways. Plus, it brings new attention to the entire state and region.”

State tourism director Craig Ray touts the Riley Center as one of three top new tourist attractions opening in Mississippi. “It brings an element we haven’t had before with many opportunities appealing to a wide variety of people,” he said. “It will definitely be a major tourist draw.”
Sankovich says the facility is amazing but what will happen within its walls is the thing that’s really special. “This center is soon to be a vibrant hub for performing arts, education and conferences, described by many as Mississippi’s new shining star,” he said. “With our grand opening, Meridian is home to the largest performing arts season in the state.”

Meridian’s own Sela Ward will serve as master of ceremonies for the grand opening gala with dignitaries and special guests expected from around the state. Linda Ronstadt opens the premiere season with show September 8 and 9. Riley Center marketing director Penny Kemp says the Friday night show is sold out but tickets are still available for the Saturday night performance.

The grand opening weekend is just the beginning. Kemp and Sankovich point to a full season of events and performances that includes a wide variety to appeal to all ages and backgrounds. There will be a mix of musical genres, plays, dance and educational programs for area students. The season continues through this fall and winter and into spring 2007.

Other well-known entertainers coming to Meridian for the opening season include Mississippi native Bo Diddley, Rickey Scaggs, Kathy Mattea, Wynton Marsalis, CeCe Winans and Sandi Patty. Their music encompasses pop, country, bluegrass, jazz, gospel, Christian contemporary, blues and folk.

“All of these performers have an authentic bent and go with strong feelings about their music. We wanted that to go with the historic theatre,” Kemp said. “We wanted to attract a broad range of audiences with a diverse range of different types of music, dance and comedy. Particularly for the opening season, it was important to get these types of acts.”

Kemp says it’s important for people to recognize the Riley Center is a conference center and an education center with a school component. “The center is committed to provide teachers the inspiration, tools and training needed to effectively incorporate the arts into the classroom,” she said. “A variety of school programs and workshops targeting students K-12, college students and teachers will be provided throughout the year.”

Some of the artists during opening season will give matinee performances along with workshops for interaction. “We’re doing things with different artists. It won’t be just a field trip for the sake of a field trip,” Kemp added.

As a conference center, the Riley Center has been chosen as the site of the 2007 Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Mississippi Tourism Association president Anne Coggins says all conference activities will be held there and are expected to attract over 300 tourism professionals along with others.

This is the first time Meridian has ever been considered as the site for the conference. “With the addition of the MSU Riley Center, the community is highly marketable now as a destination for meetings, conferences and other tourism related events,” Coggins said. “We were extremely impressed with the facility and the full service approach of the staff.”

Kemp says the staff of the center considers it an honor to be selected to host the Governor’s Conference within the first year of opening. “We look forward to partnering with local businesses, amenities and attractions to put our best face forward for this group.”

The MSU Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts is operated by Mississippi State University, Meridian Campus. It is named in recognition of the Riley Foundation, which made the $12.1-million anchor contribution to the project. With the gift, a stipulation was made that MSU own and operate the center. Other donations by local, state and federal agencies followed.

The Riley Center includes the Grand Opera House that is being restored to its original beauty and a five-story, state-of-the art conference center that was formerly the Marks Rothenberg Building. The buildings date to the late 1880s. Master planning started in 2002. Demolition work began in spring 2003 and construction began later that same year.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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