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Howard Hughes, Arts Commission sign Merriweather deal

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com

11:19 AM EDT, June 26, 2014

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A $19 million renovation plan for Merriweather Post Pavilion came closer to becoming reality this week when it was announced the current and future owners of the landmark music venue signed a joint development agreement.

"We are really happy and excited, and we are beginning the process of next steps," said Deborah Ellinghaus, chairwoman of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, a nonprofit that is expected to take over Merriweather by the end of the decade.

The agreement provides a structure under which renovations made possible through another arrangement between Howard Hughes Corp. and the government of Howard County, even as ownership of Merriweather passes from Hughes to the Arts and Culture Commission.

It also clears the way for the Arts and Culture Commission to begin making use of the facility prior to the official transfer of ownership, projected to happen in 2019.

The agreement between the Arts and Culture Commission and Howard Hughes Corp. became necessary after, earlier this year, Hughes and the county government announced they had agreed to a $19 million renovation plan for Merriweather, which is nearly 50 years old and, according to some, is showing its age.

The agreement between Howard Hughes and Howard County required the Arts and Culture Commission and the developer sign their own deal to ensure continuity during the transfer of the pavilion, a process that will transpire at no cost following the completion of the renovations in 2019.

"The point of the joint development agreement was to come up with a structure for Howard Hughes and the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission to engage in a process, begin renovations, and continue the negotiations that will bring us to a point where we acquire the property," Ellinghaus, of the Arts and Culture Commission, said. "We are aware there is so much more work to be done."

Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development for Howard Hughes, said the joint development agreement is a "key document" that allows the project to go "full speed ahead."

"It gave them a seat at the table, which is very sensible," Fitchitt said, referring to the Arts and Culture Commission.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, an outspoken proponent of hastening improvements to the pavilion, touted the importance of the deal.

"This agreement will ensure the future of Merriweather for generations to come, and reinforce its place as one of the finest concert venues in the country," he said in a statement. "Merriweather is the heart and soul of Columbia, and will become even more of a treasure for all of us."

Coming attractions

The agreement also grants the Arts and Culture Commission immediate access to the pavilion. Ellinghaus and commission vice chair Ian Kennedy said the access will be used to provide culture programming to the public.

"A critical piece for us was the ability to do programming at Merriweather to round out the schedule," Kennedy said. "IMP [the operator and booking agent for the pavilion] is great at the commercial acts, but we see our role as being able to broaden the scope of what's offered there."

Ellinghaus said a few ideas the commission is considering include: a local battle of the bands, a film festival, an annual open house and theatrical performances.

"The programming opportunities are what is exciting the commission more than anything," Ellinghaus said. "The possibilities are endless with a venue like Merriweather. ... This is something we are very proud of in Columbia, and the programming is going to support that pride."

Ulman echoed the sentiment, saying: "I am particularly pleased that Merriweather will establish a stronger community arts and culture presence under this agreement."

According to Kennedy, the construction will begin with modest improvements during the coming off-season, to include restroom and concession stand upgrades. Those improvements will be realized through the county's red line review process, which is intended to be used to approve minor changes to site development plans.

The bulk of the work is expected to occur in the 2015 off-season and will cost an estimated $8.2 million. That phase, which includes $4.9 million in roofing upgrades and replacements, will go through the 16-step approval process outlined in the Downtown Columbia Plan. Kennedy said by starting the process soon, the Arts and Culture Commission and Howard Hughes Corp. expect to secure approval in time to begin in the fall of 2015.

"The hope is that, through a red-line, we can begin work on the first part while we get all of our approvals for the larger phases," Kennedy said.

Fitchitt said Howard Hughes is "excited to be moving forward" with construction plans for the pavilion.

"I like the nuts and bolts of construction; the designing and working on the physical project, seeing how it will come together," he said.

According to Kennedy, the negotiation on the agreement lasted a few months, and it had its "ups and downs."

"It's a multi-page legally binding document. If you had asked me should negotiations take a week, I would say no way," he said.

Fitchitt said: "Like any negotiation, it takes time and is important to understand" the objectives of both sides.

Ellinghaus said, while the $19 million improvement plan is vital to the future of the pavilion, the Arts and Culture Commission has grander designs.

"We want to add more seating so we can sell more tickets, and we want to make it the most desirable place in the region to perform," she said. "The required face lift will be wonderful, but we are thinking bigger and better. ... We have hopes we can do more."