Ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion — a 49-year-old outdoor music amphitheater placed by James Rouse in the heart of Columbia — transferred from Howard Hughes Corp. to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission Wednesday, marking a milestone moment for a venue that has served as a crowning cultural oasis for residents and guests.
Contemplated for more than six years, the transfer symbolizes a pivotal moment ahead of Columbia's 50th anniversary next year as Howard Hughes Corp., the planned community's master developer, overhauls 391-acres of downtown Columbia into an urban core.
"This is a historic day," said Greg Fitchitt, Howard Hughes vice president of development, who joined local and state officials at a ceremonial transfer Wednesday morning.
The transfer allows the commission, a nonprofit organization that aims to promote arts and culture in Columbia, to add more community-based programming. Plans include shows by local artists and partnerships with local organizations to bring a local vibe to the pavilion, a wooded mecca lit up by legendary performers like Jimi Hendrix and The Who in the 70s and 80s.
"Today is the day that opens the door to imagination," said Howard County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who moved to Columbia in 1972.
Merriweather has staked an emblematic place in the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Columbia, an area Rouse envisioned to be fully develop by the late1980s.
The more than $1 billion development in Columbia got a significant push in early November when the County Council passed a $90 million tax increment financing deal to fund public infrastructure, including a $51 million public parking garage for Merriweather. Howard Hughes' development plan takes over the parking currently used for Merriweather's shows, a development that threatened the venue's survival.
"This really was a grand bargain that we have consummated here," said County Executive Allan Kittleman Wednesday. "Merriweather Post Pavilion is the jewel of downtown Columbia and Howard County and now we have the comfort in knowing it will continue to shine bright for future generations."
The council conditioned the release of the TIF funds on the transfer of Merriweather, jump starting the development of the Merriweather district, a three million-square-foot area that surrounds the pavilion and is slated to become a thriving center for culture and commerce. The area includes one million square feet of commercial office space, 750 residential apartment units and 250,000 square feet of street retail.
Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, shed his lengthy beard, grown for months in anticipation of the transfer, in celebration.
Kennedy's career blossomed out of Merriweather's beleaguered history. In 2003, development by General Growth Properties threatened to shutter the pavilion, firing up local advocates who sustained a Save Merriweather campaign to keep the concert venue open. Kennedy and his friend Justin Carlson, two Columbia kids and former bandmates, launched the campaign.
Nearly 13 years later, the music at Merriweather will continue playing.
"While we appreciate the past, we are always looking ahead," Kennedy said. "The stage for the next 50 years is being set."
The arts and culture scene, is already stringing up for a new start.
The pavilion is undergoing $19 million in renovations amid ongoing noise complaints from the surrounding community during the pavilion's shows.
City planners and developers are mulling plans for a new $130 million cultural arts center in the area to bring art organizations, including Toby's Dinner Theatre, under one roof and provide affordable housing for artists. East of the pavilion, a bright green shell-shaped outdoor amphitheater, the Chrysalis, is taking shape as the first phase of construction planned for retooling at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods.
The ongoing revitalization is the product of Columbia's 30-year master plan, which passed in 2010 after a series of public charettes and negotiations with the county and GGP, the successor to the Rouse Co. and the principal land owner in Columbia at the time.
Howard Hughes Corp., a spin-off corporation created by GGP assumed ownership of developable land in 2010 after GGP emerged from bankruptcy. That plan was updated this year with an increase of 744 affordable units on top of the already planned 5,500 residential units.
Local officials looked to the future at Wednesday's ceremony, which cements the pavilion's place in local hands for generations to come.
"People will look back and just marvel at what an icon Merriweather has become — even more than it is today," said County Council Chairman Calvin Ball.
Meanwhile, the sound of construction vehicles and equipment reverberated at the mouth of the pavilion as the ongoing revitalization project rolls on.