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MSU’s Riley Center drawing thousands to downtown Meridian

The Mississippi State University (MSU) Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts, which opened in an historic building in downtown Meridian in late 2006, has been a runaway success attracting 60,000 visitors to downtown Meridian each year for meetings, conventions and performances.

“Part of the MSU-Meridian campus, the multifaceted center serves as a source of pride for Mississippi State University, Meridian and the state as a whole,” said Dennis Sankovich, executive director for the MSU Riley Center. “Our space has been used for everything from traditional conference/convention space for networking, training, seminars and interactive workshops to black tie gala events, a political campaign stop for presumed Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, to a backdrop for the filming of ‘Oprah.’”

One of the unique things about the facility that includes a performing arts theater is that the staff and facility are equipped to create the best environment required to create the right ambience, setting and presentation for a group’s event. No group function here is cookie cutter.

“We provide a custom approach to everything we host here, whether it be providing enhanced technology or theater-quality lighting to create the right stage or backdrop for the event,” Sankovich said. “That is what makes holding a meeting here special. We care about lighting and sound and are committed to take care of details while presenting your meeting in an exquisite setting.”

The feedback from groups who have held conventions at the MSU Riley Center has been exceptional. One of the largest events at the MSU Riley Center has been an annual meeting of the Southern Children Services for Children and Youth (SCSCY). Sue Cherney, executive director, SCSCY, said in 19 years of doing the conference and other special events, “we have not seen the dedication and professionalism that we experienced with the Riley Center staff.”

Another of the largest events at the center was the Mississippi Tourism Association annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

“The MSU Riley Center is one of the most outstanding venues in a state that is becoming known for its uniqueness and Southern charm,” said Anne Coggins, president of the Mississippi Tourism Association. “The staff of the center went out of their way to ensure that our conference ran smoothly and seamlessly. All of this is to say that Meridian impressed not only me, but also all of the attendees. Meridian’s downtown is on the way to becoming an all around mecca for entertainment. The shops are unique and your future plans for the area will only add to the attractions already in place.”

The MSU Riley Center’s biggest draw is the historic 1889 historic Grand Opera House theatre, which not only hosts nationally touring artists but also serves as a meeting space for conference groups to hold general sessions, awards programs and private entertainment especially for the conference attendees.

“The historic theater is a very unique aspect of the facility that meeting planners recognize as having tremendous value,” said Penny Kemp, marketing director for the MSU Riley Center. “When meeting planners walk into the theater and realize that they can hold their general session or keynote address in this space, they are truly blown away. There’s no question holding general assembly events on our stage have a far greater impact when compared to the same presentation on a flat floor banquet hall with a portable stage. Planners and attendees alike love being in the theater. It is as if we are offering a special attraction and meeting space all in one for conference goers to enjoy.”

Approximately 30 performing arts events are held annually. Kemp said when they are able to schedule conference dates so that the convention attendees can take in a show, that is an added bonus that generates excitement and increases the conference attendance numbers.

Another major downtown restoration project is in the works that will compliment activities at the MSU Riley Center. The Threefoot Hotel, an art deco building that is the tallest building downtown, has been empty for a long time. The hotel was turned into offices before becoming vacant. But the City of Meridian is currently working with a developer to renovate and re-open the hotel. Maureen Lofton, assistant for governmental affairs, City of Meridian, said the city has gotten a proposal from Historic Renovation Inc., based in New Orleans, to renovate the hotel that will be the only hotel in the downtown.

“That project is moving forward,” Lofton said. “It is going to be a huge impact on downtown.”

Since opening the MSU Riley Center has hosted more than 500 meetings and conference events, and 70 plus performing arts events. The center has also partnered with arts and education organizations including the Smithsonian Institute, The Kennedy Center and The Lincoln Center.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

About Becky Gillette

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