When Columbia's new Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods is finished, it will be an attraction drawing 2.5 million visitors a year.
That's the prediction of Joni Newkirk, CEO of Florida-based Integrated Insight Inc., who spoke before an audience of 200 last week, telling the gathering, "You've got a great project on your hands."
Newkirk, whose firm specializes in attendance forecasting and capacity planning, took part in "Math of Architecture and Architecture of Math," a lecture presented by the Inner Arbor Trust on Tuesday in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.
The presentation also included Bill Zahner, CEO and president of A. Zahner Co., the Missouri manufacturing and engineering-design firm creating and installing the facade of the outdoor amphitheater known as the Chrysalis, which makes up the first phase of the $30 million project and is being funded by a $6.4 million county grant.
The Inner Arbor Trust, a nonprofit formed in May 2013, is charged with overseeing design, development and operation of the park, which will be on 16.5 acres of the 37-acre Symphony Woods.
Future features include the Caterpillar, a series of pocket parks set into a botanical berm; the Butterfly, a food pavilion; musical features called Skyhorns, Land Horns, Song Cycles and Tone Reeds; and Merriground, a children's playscape.
Michael McCall, president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust, said the presentation was designed to brief residents on what's been going on behind the scenes to bring the downtown project to life.
"We went 'radio silent' for a while on purpose," McCall said in an interview before the event. "Now that there are things in place we decided we had something to share in a formal setting."
The trust will hold a similar event Jan. 26 in Smith Theatre titled "Let There Be Light," with speakers discussing how the Chrysalis will be illuminated, McCall said.
Newkirk, a former senior vice president for Disney theme parks, resorts and its cruise line, estimated Merriweather Park would have a half-million annual visits more than downtown Pittsburgh's Cultural District — "which is a wonderful place," she said — but far fewer than the 4 million visitors projected for Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre park in Chicago with an outdoor music venue and other features.
"There really isn't anything comparable to Merriweather Park," she said, based on her firm's market assessment of 50 venues worldwide and a 1,000-person online survey, among other data-gathering techniques.
Zahner provided an explanation of what his company does in order to build and install the Chrysalis, which will have a stage as large as that of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Since the Chrysalis' Sept. 14 groundbreaking, fire hydrants and a water line have been installed and site grading is underway, Zahner said. The facility is scheduled to be completed by summer 2016, McCall has said.
The Chrysalis, which was designed by New York architect and artist Marc Fornes, features an undulating sculptural form with a 60-ton, 4,000-shingle metal skin.
Designing such a one-of-a-kind project "is not simply mechanics," Zahner said before the event.
"We interject a human element so the end result has a rhythm and cadence," he said. "There will be only one like it, since we'd get bored if we did anything twice. We are aiming to make it novel and timeless."
McCall said that even though renowned architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Merriweather Post Pavilion, also created "beautiful and crazy buildings with sweeping, curved surfaces," the Chrysalis will be "a whole other thing, with curvilinear surfaces curving in two directions at the same time."
He described Zahner's approach to the project as falling "somewhere between art and architecture."
McCall said the trust chose Newkirk's firm to perform attendance forecasting because "we wanted to make sure to get the opinion of everyman."
"It's science and it's art and it's very, very educated guesses," McCall said. He said the projections "validate that people really like cultural events that are infused into nature — and that this project is a winner."
Newkirk noted that 1.8 million of the projected 2.5 million annual visits to Merriweather Park would be general park attendance; 350,000 would come to attend Merriweather Post Pavilion concerts.
About 85 percent of projected visitors will live within 50 miles of the site, she said.
"Merriweather is a compilation of entities, much like Disney, and it's a combination of art and outdoor space" that is relatively untapped, she said. "I think you'll have a great opportunity here with special events and weddings."
Zahner pledged that "the Chrysalis will be fantastic."
"We want to provide you with a beautiful, iconic form which, if it's done right, you'll still appreciate 20 years from now," he said, explaining fabrication steps that include an analysis of how the structure will shed water and how the connection points for installing the skin are determined using algorithms.
He showed slides and aerial video of his company's work on the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, a project with an internal pipeline structure similar to the Chrysalis that is slated to open Dec. 6.
As a conclusion to Tuesday's presentation, theater lights were turned down and a preview of the Chrysalis stage lighting capabilities was demonstrated to the musical score from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Howard County Council Chairperson Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents parts of Columbia, said after the presentation that she's thrilled to see that work is underway in Symphony Woods.
"I came here tonight already excited about the whole project and that it will be done before we know it," said Sigaty.
During comments to the audience, Sigaty said the Chrysalis will be "beyond anything we were imagining."