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Ulman, Howard Hughes reveal renovation plan for Merriweather

Howard County government and developer Howard Hughes Corp. have agreed to a five-year, $19-million renovation plan for Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion, County Executive Ken Ulman announced Monday.

Renovation is expected to be complete in 2019 and will include a raised main roof, new restrooms and concessions, a new stage and new artist dressing rooms. Construction will be carried out during the off-season, beginning at the close of the concert schedule in the fall of this year. 

The plan also ensures that ownership of Merriweather will be handed from the developer to a county-created nonprofit, the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, after completion of the renovations. 

“This news means Merriweather Post Pavilion will get the upgrades it needs now, and will be part of the lifeblood of our community for decades to come,” Ulman said in a news release. “A vibrant Merriweather with expanded programming will become the cultural core of Howard County, and is just what our community expects and deserves.”

John DeWolf, senior vice president at Howard Hughes, said the developer is "excited about the agreement," and "sees it as a step in the right direction."

Debbie Ellinghaus, chairwoman of the commission, said in a statement that "this is a great day for arts in Howard County."

The plan is spelled out in a non-binding memorandum of understanding signed April 14 by representatives from Howard Hughes and its subsidiaries, the county and the commission. The plan is legally non-binding because it is contingent on approximately $10 million in funding changes proposed to the 2014-15 budgets, which the County Council is scheduled to vote on May 21. 

Some council members, most notably Mary Kay Sigaty, have stated their support for the plan.

"It is important to reach agreement now and move forward with an improved Merriweather,” said Sigaty, whose district includes downtown Columbia, in a news release. 

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who is the Democratic nominee vying to suceed Ulman as executive, said the plan is "promising," but that she's concerned with the timing.

"I'm a little concerned about the lack of public awareness here. I'm not opposing the concept, but the process concerns me greatly," she said during the council's work session Monday. 

The $19-million bill for the renovation project, which is lower than the county's original estimate of $24.5 million, will be footed by Howard Hughes through the help of a loan. The first half of the renovation project, which is approximately $9.5 million, will be borne by Howard Hughes with the remaining $9.5 million to be funded through a county grant. 

The grant, which will total $10 million and be divided between the 2014 and 2015 budgets, will be issued to the commission, which will then loan most of it, all but $500,000, to Howard Hughes for the renovation project. The commission plans to use the remaining funds and interest on the loan, estimated to be approximately $100,000 annually, for operating expenses through 2019, according to the document. 

The deal also establishes the framework for a "joint development agreement" between Howard Hughes and the commission that will allow the commission to approve both renovation plans and a purported long-term agreement with current venue operator It's My Amphitheater Inc.

The announcement of the deal concludes a squabble between Ulman and Howard Hughes over the future of the renowned outdoor concert venue that some feared could've triggered a temporary freeze on downtown development. 

It began earlier this year when Ulman, who was upset with a perceived lack of progress on renovations to the venue and other public improvements in downtown, introduced legislation that would've forced the developer to turn the pavilion over to the nonprofit later this year -- much earlier than originally agreed upon.

If the bill, which was a proposed amendment to the 2010 Downtown Columbia Plan, had been passed and Howard Hughes did not comply, the county could've withheld building permits for the developer's other downtown projects -- specifically the $125 million mixed-use apartment development in Columbia's Warfield neighborhood and the 5-million square-foot Crescent development. 

Ulman tabled the bill in April after announcing Howard Hughes and the county had made substantial progress on a deal.

In the memorandum, Ulman agreed to withdraw the bill as long as stipulations of the legislation, which also includes expediting the availability of affordable housing in downtown, are met. 

The agreement also states that the two sides will "exercise good faith efforts" to seek a permanent parking agreement for downtown. 

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Amanda Yeager contributed to this report. 

 

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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