I believe one of Mississippi’s real opportunities is to leverage its rich culture. Around the state there are individuals, groups and organizations who are trying to make their communities richer through the arts and education. One of Mississippi’s notable success stories in this area is the Mississippi State University Riley Center located in the heart of downtown Meridian. The MSU Riley Center includes a fully restored 1889 grand opera house theater that seats approximately 950, a 200-seat studio theater and 30,000 square feet of meeting space. The Center was opened in 2006 after a major renovation project to offer cultural, artistic, and educational experiences. The center attracts over 70,000 visitors to downtown Meridian annually for conferences, meetings, and performances. I was interested in this success story and recently interviewed Dennis Sankovich, the executive director of the MSU Riley Center, to learn more.
Sankovich was truly the right leader at the right time for this organization. An Ohio native, he has combined his love of the arts with business since his college days at the University of Toledo. As an undergraduate, he created an interdisciplinary degree combining his interests in music/performing arts and business for a degree major in performing arts management. As a young leader, he founded a new arts organization called the Toledo Jazz Society that presented a series of jazz concerts with a professional jazz orchestra including a major three-day jazz festival. He shared, “I had to form and manage the nonprofit board, raise funds, develop members, patrons and write grants. This was a great early learning experience and a way to support me while I finished my master’s degree in public administration.”
Prior to joining the MSU Riley Center in 2004, Sankovich spent almost 16 years as executive director of The Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, Ohio, which is a historic 1928 performing arts facility in rural northwestern Ohio that successfully completed a $5 million renovation/restoration. Sankovich was responsible for the planning, development and financing of the renovation project encompassing the theatre facility and surrounding property. Sankovich utilized his experiences to lead the $25 million historic rehabilitation project at the MSU Riley Center. The Center presents an annual series of over 20 events, is a Kennedy Center Partners in Education for school teachers and facilitates over 150 meetings and conferences a year through its conference spaces. The Center has an annual budget of over $2 million and is part of the Meridian campus of Mississippi State University.
Sankovich shared that his key principle in management is simply the “Golden Rule.” He said, “I believe that it is best to manage and treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself and create a positive atmosphere with the people around you, encouraging them to work independently and together to accomplish a clear and common goal. This can bring the greatest outcomes or rewards.” He also noted the importance of getting quality creative on your team. He said, “I look for people who have lots of heart and inspire them to bring their best game to play toward a common goal.” He believes that the job of the leader is to make sure the goals are VIVID for the team. Sankovich went on to explain that, as a leader, you have to be patient in building your team. He noted that it took him almost six years to get the right board together to undertake the project to renovate The Ritz Theatre.
Leaders like Sankovich who have a passion for developing the arts in Mississippi will play a critical role in moving the state forward in the years to come.
» Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.
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