The view from the 22nd Avenue bridge in Meridian has changed dramatically over the past year. The iconic U Needa Biscuit sign painted on the side of an abandoned building is being upstaged by construction of the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Complex on Front Street and 22nd Avenue, overlooking the railroad tracks.

“It’s going to change the look of downtown Meridian,” said Bill Hannah, president and CEO of the East Mississippi Business and Development Corporation. “With an estimated 200,000 visitors the first year, The MAX (as the complex is known) will have a tremendous impact on downtown Meridian, as well as Lauderdale County.”

Across downtown Meridian, sidewalks are being resurfaced, newly sold old buildings are being brought back to life with restaurants and retail, and residents are exuding a feeling of excitement.

“All these sleeping giants in downtown Meridian are waking up,” said Mark Tullos, executive director of The MAX, who came to the east Mississippi city from Louisiana, where he oversaw the state’s museums.

“One of the things that attracted me to the job is the inventory of wonderful real estate in Meridian, such as the remarkable Three Foot Building,” he said.

The MAX’s grand opening is set for April 27 with a black tie gala, but “it has to be finished before the 27th,” Tullos said.

“We have tours scheduled for legislators, the media and front line convention and visitors’ bureau staff in the days leading up to the gala,” he said.

The MAX will tell the stories of legendary Mississippi artists, such as Elvis Presley, Morgan Freeman, William Faulkner, Jim Henson, Tennessee Williams, B. B. King, Eudora Welty, Leontyne Price, Walter Anderson, Faith Hill and Jimmie Rodgers, and show the impact of Mississippi’s creative legacy.

The idea began with country music singer and radio personality Paul Ott Carruth. In 2001, the Mississippi Legislature established the Southern Arts and Entertainment Center Inc. That name later was changed to The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience.

Fundraising was slowed by Hurricane Katrina and a major economic recession. Despite the obstacles, the State of Mississippi pledged $29 million to the project, and more than $14 million has been pledged from private businesses and individuals. A 2 percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages in Meridian went into effect Nov. 1, and it is expected to generate approximately $2.5 million annually for 10 years. Nearly 70 percent of Meridian residents voted for the tax.

The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience is not a traditional museum, Tullos said.

“We will have some artifacts, but we are not a collection facility,” he said. “Instead, we will have interactive displays that help teach people about the contributions of creative, talented Mississippians. It will be an entertainment experience for sure, but the museum part is that this will be a teaching component.

“Not only will visitors learn about the musicians, actors, artists and writers from Mississippi, they’ll learn more about the state itself and why so many are inspired here<” he continued. “We will share the overwhelming impact of Mississippi’s creative legacy, honoring legends of the past and inspiring young artists of the future.”

Each year a ceremony will be held for a Hall of Fame inductee, a world-famous musician, actor or media personality, visual artist, author and other artist who can trace their roots to Mississippi. Considered the centerpiece of The MAX, the Hall of Fame space will soar two stories and feature touchscreens, sound and moving imagery.

This year’s Hall of Fame ceremony will be at the Riley Center in downtown Meridian.

“We will have a family day luncheon for the recipients, followed by the ceremony where we will present each award to either the artist, the family or foundation members,” Tullos said. “We are hoping they’ll all come back for our grand opening.”

This year’s inductees are musical artists Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Leontyne Price, Jimmie Rodgers and Muddy Waters; writers William Faulkner, John Grisham, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright; actors Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and Sela Ward; visual artists Walter Anderson and George Ohr; and entertainers Jim Henson and Oprah Winfrey.

Ward, a native of Meridian, serves as chairwoman of the Honorary Celebrity Committee, following such chairmen as Faith Hill and Marty Stuart. Others on the committee are Freeman, Grisham, Price, Tom Lester, Freeman, Jimmy Buffett, Charley Pride, Britney Spears, Three Doors Down and Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog.

A rendering of the Juke Joint exhibition area at The MAX.

Building The MAX in Meridian was, in part, a matter of practicality.

“Meridian is a perfect position on the interstate,” Tullos explained. “And we had room for it.

“I-20 goes right through here, so anyone going from Dallas to Atlanta passes through Meridian. We are also very close to Memphis and New Orleans,” he continued. “Instead of people pulling off to refuel or grab a burger, we want them to come to The MAX and learn more about Mississippi, perhaps planning future trips to visit other parts of the state. We will be featuring other cultural institutions and museums around Mississippi.

“This is not a Meridian thing; this is a Mississippi thing,” he said. “We want to promote all parts of the state.”

Paula Chance, marketing and communications director for The MAX, reinforces the promotional component.

“We want to do all we can to get people to come visit us, but, at the same time, each of the stories told here and each of the interactives will lead to other people and places around the state,” she said.

“There will be a kiosk that allows visitors to create their own tour map, and it will customize trips to meet special needs and interests,” she said. “The tour map will be available on smart phones or can be printed out to purchase in the gift shop.”

The People Place exhibit space at The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian

Visitors are expected to spend two to three hours in The MAX.

The second floor galleries will explore six Mississippi influences on artists: The Home, The Church, The People, The Community, The Land and The World.

“These are very sophisticated exhibits that will serve as a teaching vehicle for visitors,” Chance said. “For example, there will be an actual chapel built inside for The Church exhibit. The brick on the exterior of the chapel, as well as the pews, are from a church in Collinsville that was destroyed by a tornado.”

The stained-glass window in the church is being made by artist Andy Young of Pearl River Glass in Jackson.

“The design tells the story of the arts in Mississippi,” Young said.

The intricate design contains images of “Lucille,” the guitar B.B. King made famous, as well as other images that reference Mississippi art, music and literature.

An exhibit area of The MAX in Meridian

Visitors to The MAX also will experience forming a pot on a wheel in the style of three different Mississippi potters. A kitchen section will project onto a plate food that is prepared by Mississippi chefs.

“There will be a lot of new technology designed specifically for this museum,” Chance said.

The MAX will offer four studios downstairs that can be used by visiting artists.

“We will have a paint studio, a pottery studio, a recording studio and a broadcast studio. Upstairs classroom space is large enough for 20 to 30 kids to do projects at one time,” Chance said.

A large multipurpose room for events, and a large terrace upstairs will accommodate 100 to 150 people.

“There will be a lot of teaching and learning opportunities throughout the museum, as well as places for people to gather and socialize,” Chance said.

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