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story.lead_photo.caption Miss Arkansas Savvy Shields won the Miss America title in September, passing the Miss Arkansas crown to Savannah Skidmore, who had been first runner-up.

Jessie Ward Bennett's 10-month-long vision is close to becoming a reality.

Since it was announced in August that the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Pageant was moving from Hot Springs to Robinson Center Performance Hall in downtown Little Rock, Bennett, executive director of the pageant, has tried to picture what the scene will be like.

"We have spent a lot of time on that vision," Bennett says. "Ten months of planning, a lot of conference calls and conversation and meetings."

That vision is now real with pageant events already underway this week, and a new Miss Arkansas will be crowned Saturday, with the teen division finishing Friday night.

2017 Miss Arkansas preliminary rounds

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Bennett believes the new setting inside Robinson Center will provide an enhanced viewing experience in a classic, theater scene.

"From an audience perspective, I think the experience is so much richer," she says. "You are closer to the stage and there are a lot of ways that you can interact with your audience and your performers and then you have the boxes that are beautiful and give a regal look to the house and are unique."

The enhancement is twofold, according to Bennett, who says the contestants also will benefit from the pageant's new home.

"From a performer's perspective, [Robinson Center] is state of the art," Bennett says. "It is just incredible. Both from back of the house, to the stage itself .... I keep picturing our vocalists, our pianists and our dancers on that stage and their experience in a true theater to the detailed degree that Robinson has [been renovated], and it takes my breath away."

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A large reason for the brewing excitement is the $70 million renovation Robinson Center underwent. The project, completed in November 2016, preserved the historic significance of the building while also revamping the interior to make it more modern and accessible to large events. The completed project includes new mechanical and electrical systems, dressing room upgrades, expanded lobbies and restrooms, a new conference center and an on-site box office, among other things.

"A total revamp of the building itself," says Gretchen Hall, president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It is definitely a totally different and world-class experience."

The pageant will have about a $2 million economic impact on Little Rock over its weeklong course.

"The newly transformed Robinson Center in the heart of our capital city is a natural fit for the 80th anniversary Miss Arkansas Pageant," Mayor Mark Stodola says. "The city of Little Rock is excited to roll out the red carpet for these future leaders of our state, their families and the thousands of spectators who will be experiencing our citizens' warm hospitality and our city's wonderful amenities."

The pageant also will award $167,000 in scholarships to the 44 contestants, including $30,000 to the winner.

"That is a monumental feat to raise scholarships like that," Bennett says.

The pageant has garnered increased attention after last year's winner, Savvy Shields, went on to be crowned Miss America. Savannah Skidmore is the reigning Miss Arkansas 2016.

For the first time ever, the final night of the competition will be televised live across the state on KATV.

"We have such a strong partner in KATV; we felt like that they understand our brand, that they understand how we want to highlight our contests, so it was a no-brainer ...," Bennett says. "It was a perfect combination. It takes Miss Arkansas into households across our state that may not be able to attend at Robinson."

Bennett says the move from Hot Springs, where 58 previous winners have been crowned, was a difficult one. But it essentially came down to dates not aligning. The renovated facility in a larger city seemingly complements the increased attention and brighter spotlight, which is something Bennett says is great for the growing organization.

"The experience of having a Miss Arkansas to go on to win Miss America, it puts a spotlight and a microscope on what your program does," Bennett says. "We are so fortunate that we are doing the right things to encourage women in Arkansas to seek scholarships opportunities through our program."

Weekend on 06/15/2017

Miss Arkansas Scholarship Pageant

7 p.m. Saturday, Robinson Center Performance Hall, West Markham Street and Broadway, Little Rock

Tickets: $32-$36

(800) 745-3000

Print Headline: Miss Arkansas pageant reborn in Robinson Center

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