For years, there was good reason for skepticism about the renovation of Meridian's historic Grand Opera House. Lots of talk and minimal action will do that for a project.

It's time, though, for Meridian to start believing — and preparing for the economic transformation that awaits in the downtown business district.

The Mississippi State University Riley Center for Education and Performing Arts will open in six months or so, and downtown Meridian will never be the same.

Construction is proceeding on schedule. The focal point of the $24.8 million project is the renovated Opera House, a 1,000-seat theater that is being restored to its 1890s decor. There will be no finer performing-arts venue in Mississippi.

But the Riley Center is much more than the Opera House. The renovated Marks-Rothenberg Building will contain more than 30,000 square feet of conference, exhibit, meeting and classroom space, allowing the center to host a wide variety of meetings and conferences. The technology, including an audio and video recording studio, will be first-rate.

Conservative estimates put the facility's draw at 50,000 people annually, with an economic impact of $4.7 million.

The key to maximizing the Riley Center's economic impact is to develop supporting infrastructure — chiefly, a hotel so that convention-goers are within easy walking distance of their meetings. Good news on that front came recently when a Jackson developer signed a contract to purchase the adjacent Threefoot Building and convert it to a hotel.

But more investment is needed. Imagine 500 convention attendees with a two-hour lunch break flooding the streets of downtown Meridian. More eating, shopping and entertainment options are needed.

No matter how fine a facility the Riley Center is, visitors will judge Meridian by their total experience while in town. The ability to draw repeat visitors — and convention business — will be critical to the success of both the Riley Center and the community in general.

It's time for those with the wherewithal to invest big-time in downtown Meridian. The time for skepticism has passed. It's time to believe.

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