MERIDIAN, Miss.–Raising enough support and enough money to get started on the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center took years. Saturday shovels finally went into the ground for the ceremonial ground-breaking that starts what is estimated to be a two-year construction.
The name was changed, too. It is now the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience.
Just imagine for a moment a childhood in the Mississippi of the past. You grow up singing in church. You know you’re good. The choir director gives you a solo almost every week. You get really good as a teenager. It’s your dream to make it big. You end up at the New York opera.
That’s the story of Leontyne Price, born in Laurel, whose voice was once called “a Price beyond pearls”, and it’s inspiring more stories like that, that Paul Ott, MAEE board member and Mississippi entertainer, said he hopes will be one purpose of the center.
“The excitement to me is the young people wanting to be stars that can come and interact with the stars and see what it takes,” said Ott.
By interact with the stars, Ott was speaking of the museum displays that will go well beyond a picture and a vignette. Digital screens, multimedia presentations and interactive exhibits will highlight the 58,000 sq. ft., two-story facility.
The center will focus on five themes: the land, the home, the community, the church and the people, and will include a 22,000 sq. ft. hall of fame that will highlight the artists, writers, actors ans singers who came from Mississippi who have helped make the world what it is culturally.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘what is it about this place?'” said Cybelle Jones, principal and Gallagher and Associates, out of Washington, D.C., the firm that designed the museum. Jones told Saturday’s crowd that she knew very little about Mississippi when the firm was awarded the project, but over time found herself drawn to the “birthplace of America’s music” and to the purpose of the center.
“When you start to hear the stories of the artists, they’re not always the happy stories. There’s a lot of strife and there’s a lot of perseverance and hardship and passion.”
That passion, that seems to impress people who visit Mississippi, is expected to attract 160,000 people a year to Meridian to visit the center. But, some of them won’t stop there. The Experience will serve as a hub, guiding visitors to places like the Delta for the BB King Museum or to Tupelo to see Elvis’ birthplace, or to the two new, similarly-constructed museums in Jackson, set to open in 2017 also.
“While this facility is located in downtown Meridian, it’s not a Meridian project. It’s not an east central Mississippi project. This is a Mississippi project that’s gonna be great for all of our state,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who attended the ground-breaking with other city, state and national elected officials, including Mississippi legislators, Meridian’s mayor and council president and Rep. Gregg Harper.
Planning for the project first began in 1998 with the Mississippi legislature and got delayed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit.
“Because of the hurricane and the economy it’s taken a long time, but this is a great day for the state of Mississippi,” said Ott, who has been with the project almost since its inception.
The original plan was to make it part of the Ag Museum, but after a Stennis Institute study that said it needed to be not just about music, but Mississippi’s entire culture, it was eventually decided that Meridian would be its home. Elected officials acknowledged the work it took to establish the location.
THE ENTIRE CEREMONY, IN TWO PARTS