$2.5 million Hardin grant goes to Riley Center, Grand Opera House

Contact: Joe Farris

The largest grant in the Phil Hardin Foundation's history will help assure support for operation of the Riley Education and Performing Arts Center planned for downtown Meridian.

The Meridian foundation is committing $2.5 million to an endowment whose earnings will help maintain and enhance the center being developed under the leadership of Mississippi State University. The Riley Center will occupy the historic Grand Opera House and adjacent Marks-Rothenberg Building when the two structures are renovated in the coming months.

The gift announced at a Tuesday [Dec. 18] news conference at MSU's Meridian Campus brings to $4.2 million the total private contributions committed so far to the Riley Center's operating endowment. The endowment was established last year with a goal of $5 million.

"This very generous gift is a significant commitment to the future of Meridian as a whole," said MSU President Malcolm Portera, who spearheaded efforts to assemble the $19 million public-private funding package for the Riley Center's construction.

"The Hardin Foundation's willingness to provide half of the total projected operating endowment virtually assures that the continuing fund-raising effort will reach its goal and guarantees a steady stream of income that will allow the Riley Center to better serve the region," Portera added.

The $2.5 million gift establishes three separate funds whose earnings will support major components of Riley Center programming, said Hardin Foundation President Robert Ward.

The Phil Hardin Community Issues Endowment is funded at $750,000 and will support a regional forum to explore historic trends in East Mississippi communities and their implications for the future.

The Phil Hardin Arts and Education Performance Endowment, also funded at $750,000, will help sponsor a series of performances, lectures, artists-in-residence, and other experiences.

The Riley Center Technology Enhancement Endowment, funded at $1 million, will be used to help purchase equipment, materials and software for the center's academic programming and community outreach programming.

The Phil Hardin Foundation, established in 1964 by the founder and owner of Hardin's Bakeries, supports educational improvements in Mississippi. The foundation has distributed almost $16 million for that purpose since 1990 and had almost $50 million in assets at the end of last year.

The planned restoration of the 1890 Grand Opera House and Marks-Rothenberg Building will be the culmination of years of effort to preserve and protect the historic buildings.

The downtown development project was jumpstarted in February 2000 with a $10 million anchor gift from the Riley Foundation, also of Meridian, to support construction and renovation. The construction budget was rounded out with a $3 million bond issue authorization by Lauderdale County and $6 million in federal grants.

The City of Meridian is building a $7 million, 500-car parking garage nearby in conjunction with the project, which is expected to spur downtown revitalization.

Earlier this year, the Grand Opera House of Mississippi Inc. transferred title to the historic properties to Mississippi State. Architectural designs for the planned renovations should be complete within a year and construction will require an estimated two to three years, said project coordinator Bev. Norment, special assistant to the MSU president.

Tue, 12/18/2001 - 06:00