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A Twenty Year Legacy, Erin Southard to leave the Vicksburg Convention Center

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erin southard

Vicksburg, Miss – After twenty years of service at the Vicksburg Convention Center, Erin Southard has become synonymous with the event space. From Miss Mississippi, to drive through catfish expos, she has worn many hats, and has been in almost every position in her time there. Nearly every person that walks through the door of the Convention Center has at one time or another held an event that she worked and she knows them all by name, their kids have grown up together. She has been the ever-beating and constant heart of the building itself.

Next week will be her last week at the Convention Center, leaving as the Executive Director, and before the end of the summer, the town where she has called home since junior high will be in the rear view for the last time. New opportunities are leading her and her family to New Hampshire.

“We moved here in junior high, and up to that point I’d always said Memphis was my home, but I didn’t have roots there. It’s where I was born, but we were on the road so much, that it wasn’t until we moved here that this is where I grew some roots. This is where I created a community and family outside of blood-family. It’s taken it’s toll that I’m leaving, but the adventure is too great.” said Southard.

The news of her leaving has only been official since the week before Memorial Day, but the job had been offered to her since the spring, with Southard hesitant to turn in her notice.

“I knew” Southard said, “but I didn’t want to put it [the notice] in if something falls through between now and then.”

27 days in Crescent City

In the aftermath of the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought upon New Orleans, roughly 500 people called the Convention Center their home for twenty-seven days, Erin and the rest of the staff included.

“At first we were on 6 hours shifts, but when you have a small staff, that means people are…are always coming in at random hours. So eventually it got to more of a first, second, and third shift.”

Operations took the overnight shifts, Southard took the swing shift, with the rest of the staff working the more traditional office hours.

“Even though we were the shelter, we were also still functioning. At first, it was cancelling business, and then rescheduling business, and then new business was still being booked and handled because we were not going to remain a shelter indefinitely.” said Southard. “We may not have known the end date when we started, but we knew that time was going to come to an end. I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be twenty-seven days.”

Erin Southard
Erin is honored at a going away party with Mayor George Flaggs and Alderman Monsour. Photo by Don Hill

The refugees made their home downstairs, using the Convention Center’s chairs to divide the space into little homes. The spaces were respected to the point where a visitor would politely “knock” before they came in. Soon the space was dubbed Crescent City and they elected a mayor. The mayor would settle disputes, hold town hall meetings to discuss quality of life issues i.e. curfews, etc. and generally helped the citizens of Crescent City navigate their new world.

Upstairs, in the meeting rooms, an infirmary was setup for the ill, as well as a store for the citizens of Crescent City to begin to rebuild, purchasing clothing and other necessities, as some arrived with only the clothes on their back.

Quoting Dickens, Southard said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Tony Bennett and the spark

In October of 2005, Erin was sent to Ohio to help a new 5000 seat arena complex open up. She arrived at the tail end of construction, overseeing the punch list necessary to open the doors.

It was in that time she met one of her mentors, Scott Schoenike, and saw the other side of venue management. Unlike the Vicksburg Convention Center, this was an arena with ice rink capability (even getting to ride the Zamboni) and host to large capacity concerts.

The arena kicked off with a bang, hosting hockey games and three concerts: Three Doors Down, a Pink Floyd Experience and Tony Bennett. Three Doors Down was the first evening. The assistant director took Erin to what the AD called “her place to be at the begining of a concert”, down in front, between the barricades and the stage.

As the kabuki curtain fell, witnessing the union workers never miss a beat, pulling it down and out of the way was like magic, Erin was enthralled.

The following evening, Tony Bennett was to perform. With the building still being new, some of the furniture had not been moved into the sky boxes. Southard and Scott Schoenike were tasked with going down to the the locker rooms to grab some chairs. As she walked down the hallway, there was Tony Bennett, standing in front of the mirror, warming up his voice.

“I stopped. That’s Tony Bennett, that is a legend. Scott turns around realizing I wasn’t with him and I pointed into the room and mouthed ‘That’s Tony Bennett!’. and he was like ‘yes, come on.'” reflected Southard.

After catching up with Schoenike she reiterated “That’s Tony Bennett! We’re doing something that people don’t get to do.”

Schoenike replied “Yes, but you get used to it. Come on, we’ve got to move these chairs.”

It was in that moment that her job became her career.

“It was something about that experience that knowing that I just had an experience that is not a public experience. It was that moment that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.” said Southard.

The Memory Maker

Upon reflecting of her favorite memories at the Convention Center, Southard said if she had to pick, it would be the Miss Mississippi Pageant.

“It’s the best and the worst. It is the hardest week because it’s long hours, it’s seven to fourteen days in a row with no days off, but come Saturday night a crown is on a head. It doesn’t matter all the problems or anything that has come up through the week. There’s going to be a crown on that head, a girl’s life is going change, other people’s lives are changing, family’s are elated and excited and celebrating and I get to stand there at the door and go ‘Wow, this is amazing’.” said Southard.

“It’s being the memory maker. Even though people don’t know we’re part of their memories. Knowing that we’re the creators of memories and experiences that people get to enjoy that will last a lifetime in their world.”

Erin Southard
Erin Southard at 20 years. Photo by Don Hill
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