The Mississippi State Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts is about 19 days from opening.
Dennis Sankovich, executive director of the center, and Penny Kemp, marketing director, sat down with The Meridian Star Editorial Board last week to discuss the center’s Sept. 8 opening and the process of renovating the opera house.
The Meridian Star: Has the construction process been a smooth one?
Dennis Sankovich: It’s never smooth, it’s like birthing a baby. You always have your bumps in the road but the thing is how you deal with them. Everything has been coming through pretty well. We’re very happy with the center and what it looks like.
It’s a very complicated process when you’re doing three buildings like this of this magnitude, so it’s a challenge. But we’ve met all the challenges and are moving toward the finish line.
The Star: What is the status of making the streets two way around the Riley Center?
Sankovich: From what I’ve heard from the Meridian City Council, they are on track to have the streets changed before the opening. I think they are set to be changed by Sept. 1 or Sept. 5. Will that be enough time to get people acclimated? I can’t worry about that. The Riley Center by itself is going to be hard to be used to, it’s new.
The streets are just one more thing and I think they’ll find, eventually, it’s all going to be good because slowing down traffic that runs through the downtown is going to make it better for business coming through. It’s also going to be better for the retailers that are trying to do business and the pedestrians trying to cross the street.
I don’t know about you, but crossing 22nd Avenue sometimes can be like taking your life into your own hands. I can’t believe how people think that is a thoroughfare. This is a business district. Making it two-way and making it more pedestrian friendly, more parking friendly, those types of things, is a good thing. The downtown is a business district and is developing and things are going to change.
The Star: The announcement that the Threefoot building will be sold to a New Orleans firm who plans to turn it into a luxury hotel must be big news for you and the Riley Center.
Sankovich: We love it. We’ve been hoping for a hotel near the center ever since the project began so seeing it come to fruition, and with a terrific developer such as HRI, we are really excited about them coming in and taking this project on. It’s a wonderful thing for the city of Meridian.
Having a more upscale hotel will be good. And I know a lot of people think this is one more thing for the filthy rich in town, but that is simply
not the case. This breeds opportunity both for businesses and other groups. Every choice we have in town is your standard interstate level of quality hotel. The Hilton Garden that is coming in is one step below an upscale.
Business travelers and conference attendees want to stay at a destination place and getting a destination hotel for a destination conference center is going to mean a lot to this community and other trade and other business. Right now, our motels along the interstate are very busy with interstate trade, but what we need is a hotel with a focus in a different direction. It’s got nothing to do with rich people or poor people or anything like that, it has something to do with business.
Penny Kemp: The hotels along the interstate, while they do a good business now, they will also benefit from this and they recognize that because they know that by having a downtown hotel property we will work with them and there are going to have space to compliment ours.
One of the things we need is a ballroom that will allow us to serve a sit-down dinner banquet for 1,000. We’ve got all the breakout meeting space that we need to accommodate a 1,000-person conference, and of course we have a theater with 1,000-person seating, but we don’t have a place to feed 1,000 people. So by having this downtown hotel next door to us that has sit-down dinner capacity for 1,000, that allows us to attract a whole new realm of conferences that we were not able to go after before.
Those people aren’t all going to stay at the Threefoot hotel, there won’t be enough room for them. All of the hotels and the new Hilton Garden — which will be built next to the Hampton Inn across from Howard Johnson’s — will benefit from that as well. What’s also nice is that we’re going to have a really nice selection from a high end to Hilton Garden Inn to the Holiday Inn Express, which is really important for servicing these conferences.
Sankovich: Most of the artists and stars that we’re bringing in, in their contracts they’re asking for 4- and 5-star hotels, well, we barely have a 2-star.
The Star: So where are you putting your artists?
Kemp: We don’t have a problem accommodating the artists here in local hotels.
The Star: How did you put together the lineup for the season of the MSU Riley Center?
Sankovich: It really is a lot of opinion. I work with the agents and work on picking and contracting the artists, but it really is a collaborative effort. We all try to make sure that I’m not booking my tastes or anyone else’s in our group. We try to give something that offers a spectrum of things in this area and try to get feedback from that. I believe in a collaborative effort and so we all had input.
Kemp: There also was a real conscious decision to bring in diverse artists that have appeal to a broad spectrum but also would be a mix of artist that are people that you’ve heard of and people that you haven’t heard of. We’ve got new emerging artists like Leahy, a Canadian group who has an incredible following in Canada but is not as well known here and are just starting to make a name for themselves.
That is why it’s important to bring in artists like the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa. We really wanted to have things in the center that would appeal to our culture, that’s part of our blues, country, folk, gospel upbringing and culture inherited here, but we also wanted to bring in some other culture to the area. That’s why it was important to bring things like Trinity Irish Dance and Ailey II Dance Company and other things that would expose people to things maybe they had never had a chance to see before. The other really conscious decision was to make sure we had a spectrum of different priced shows available.
There has been some misconception about the prices and we want to make sure everybody understands that our show prices range from $14 to per adult to $68 per adult. And $68 is our highest ticket performance of the season and that is for four artists that are coming in, the likes of which are recognized internationally: Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely and Guy Clark.
Average ticket prices across the season are $30. So, people who have looked into it, who have actually either gone online or received an order form and taken a look at it and taken a look at the prices have been pleasantly surprised that we are able to bring in the caliber of talent that we are for those prices. The bulk of our shows hover around $25 to $35 — everybody from Sandi Patty to Vickie Lawrence, which is very reasonable. And then you combine that with the intimate, incredible theatre space and you don’t have to drive 100 miles and spend that gas money.
The Star: Did you have any trouble booking acts since you are a new facility and don’t have an established track record?
Sankovich: I worked with the staff and we developed a philosophy on what we wanted the Riley Center to stand for. We are developing with everything we do, a brand. So what we’re looking at, I feel, is like the merchandise on our shelf. What we are presenting is like merchandise and when people walk into our little shop, they want to know, ‘do I relate to this? Does this look like me, do I fit in here?’
We were very conscious of that and we took that into consideration and then we looked at other things. What do we stand for? So we really like the authenticity and diversity of things.
Beyond that, I have 25 years of experience in the performing arts field and I have a lot of contacts so I looked at matching artists with our philosophy.
The Star: Tell us about the educational programs.
Sankovich: The most exciting thing about our educational program is that it is mostly built around continuing education. But the cornerstone is K-12 education of children and teachers who train teachers to educate those children.
Our goal has been in bringing a new educational model to Mississippi, we are in partnership with the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and we are bringing Kennedy Center programs to Meridian.
Charlotte Tabereaux, our education director, is working not only with the Kennedy Center but with as many of the teaching organizations and our regional schools to make a connection between what we are doing as a conference and performing arts center and connect it with classrooms and other training.
The Mississippi State Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts is about 19 days from opening.
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