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Main Street aiming to rebuild downtown Meridian

By By Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star
March 19, 2001
Meridian was once a cultural icon of the Southeast and Sharon Smith, manager of Main Street Meridian, believes it can be again.
Smith, Main Street manager for the past seven years, made the comments during an editorial board interview with The Meridian Star.
In its heyday, Meridian was a major stop on the rail lines between New York and New Orleans, drawing a variety of theatrical and musical performers. At one time the city had five operating theaters for live performances, ready venues for traveling performers wanting to perform and put some extra money in their pockets.
Core pieces
Smith, who also serves as director of Meridian's Union Station, believes the core pieces are in place for the city to reclaim its crown as commercial and residential interests explore new opportunities in downtown.
Among the city's achievements in downtown revitalization has been Union Station. Smith said the revamped multi-model station through which more than a half million passengers move each year is a significant contributor to the local economy.
But Meridian's greatest fame will come with revitalization of the Grand Opera House and Marks Rothenberg building, she says.
While other downtowns across America have allowed older, historical buildings to be torn down due to age and deterioration, Smith says Meridian has been fortunate to retain many structures. According to Smith, the structures can support additional growth.
Toast' of region
With plans calling for renovation of the Grand Opera House to be complete by 2003, Smith has focused her attention on one of the last ingredients in downtown revitalization, the renewal of the city's African American Urban Historic District. According to Smith, the district serves as home to many historic buildings from an era when Meridian was truly the toast of the region.
The district featured popular venues that attracted many African-American celebrities of the time, including the Starlight Lounge which played host to the likes of James Brown, Fats Domino and Duke Ellington.
Unfortunately, the area is now deteriorating because of neglect. Smith said she is intent on finding funds to restore the district to its original grandeur.
Heritage trail
One proposal is that historical landmarks in the district be combined with other local African-American landmarks as part of a heritage trail that could become a major tourism attraction for the city. Smith said funding to restore the properties must be found first.
Smith says in order for Meridian to take advantage of its cultural past, leaders, civic groups and citizens must all work together on the revitalization.
Ben Alexander is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at balexander@themeridianstar.com.