No overhaul of pavilion is planned

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The owners and operators of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia insist they have no plans to overhaul their operation, even though the 28-year-old concert facility is no longer state of the art.

But the growth in the number and size of competing sheds -- as open-air concert venues are known in the music business -- means that, like it or not, Merriweather will have to change.

Already, hugely popular acts such as the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Grateful Dead refuse to play the 15,000-capacity Merriweather. And the 25,000-capacity Nissan Pavilion that opened this month at Stone Ridge in Prince William County, Va., poses another threat.

The Rouse Co., which owns Merriweather, while denying any immediate plan to overhaul the operation, already has had to ponder a series of major changes to keep the hall competitive. Those possibilities included making Merriweather a year-round cultural facility with an enclosed auditorium, restaurants, shops, and perhaps conference and convention facilities.

"You have to be looking at where you need to be five, six, seven years from now," said Rouse Vice President Alton J. Scavo, general manager for the development of Columbia. "We have to look [at Merriweather Post Pavilion] in many respects. It has to meet the market demand. We have to be ready."

The future of Merriweather was a central issue two weeks ago when Rouse went before the county Planning Board for approval of a zoning change to let it build apartments, condominiums and townhouses within 500 feet of the pavilion.

In his testimony, Mr. Scavo noted that the most popular groups come to the largest houses in a region -- a distinction Merriweather can't claim. Merriweather is "a landmark, a tourist attraction, but I can't warrant that it will always be open," he told the Planning Board.

Statements like that, and the fact that Rouse wants to put residential properties so close to the pavilion, lead Wilde Lake village board member David Gardner to wonder whether there is a "longer-term plan on the part of the powers that be" that would eliminate the concert grounds.

The townhouse issue will come before the Zoning Board next month.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Scavo asked that his Planning Board remarks not be interpreted as meaning that Rouse is planning to change Merriweather, which is managed by the Nederlander theatrical organization.

"Please don't take my remarks [at the Planning Board hearing] as indicating that Merriweather is on the verge of change," he said. "We have a long-term lease and the operators are doing a terrific job. . . . We are not in transition. . . . As long as the market is telling us it's a going concern, we want to keep it going."

Facility 'old and tired'

But Merriweather faces tough competitive pressure.

"People who come to my place aren't going to go back to Merriweather if they have a choice," said Dave Williams, owner of the production company staging acts at Nissan. He told The Sun recently that "Merriweather was a great venue 25 years ago, [but] it's old and tired. My place is more user-friendly. I've got more parking. I've got more seats under the roof. It's just more comfortable."

Industry analyst Gary Bongiovanni, of Pollstar magazine, said the Virginia operation could indeed put Merriweather at a disadvantage.

"It all boils down to money," he said. "Most artists will go to the bigger place. Most new facilities have at least a one-year honeymoon, both with performers and with the community -- people wanting to see the new place."

Jean Parker, Merriweather's general manager, thinks Merriweather can continue to remain profitable with about 45 concerts a year from May to September, but may have to alter its schedule slightly.

"Some artists like to play a more intimate setting," she said. But the so-called superstar rock groups will "probably prefer larger venues."

Parking is limited

It is unlikely Merriweather will be able to expand its capacity, because of limited parking facilities. "Look outside the fence" surrounding the 9-acre pavilion, Ms. Parker said. "The roads can support [large audiences]. The big question is parking. We have no light rail."

Regardless, Merriweather has always been profitable, she said. As for Nissan, it may have more parking, more seating and three 30-foot by 40-foot video screens, but Virginia's roads may be so clogged that people stop going there, she said.

Industry analyst Bongiovanni notes, however, that a pavilion about the size of Merriweather near Chicago closed this year after losing out in several years of competition with a newer, enlarged venue that entered that market.

"Newer, bigger mousetraps are coming," Mr. Bongiovanni said. "It's going to be difficult [for venues like Merriweather] to compete with large amphitheaters." Many smaller houses seating 5,000 to 7,000 -- such as Pier 6 in Baltimore -- are being built, he said, but "they appeal more to the wine-and-cheese crowd and [middle-of-the-road] acts."

A smaller venue is what Rouse was thinking about to begin with, said Robert Tennenbaum, a planner for the Rouse Co. during the 1960s.

Location questioned

"If the developer had known that Merriweather would be a venue for rock concerts, it would have put the pavilion in a less-disruptive location," he said. As now constituted, Merriweather is "out of scale with downtown," he said.

Meanwhile, Merriweather is one of the sites being considered by a committee that County Executive Charles I. Ecker appointed recently to explore the need for a new conference, convention and exhibit center within the county.

Richard W. Story, executive director of the county Economic Development Authority, said Merriweather might serve that purpose, offering a site for trade shows, arts festivals, and home and garden shows.

Mr. Scavo said that Rouse has discussed using the Merriweather site for a conference and convention center many times. "It would be a wonderful place for trade shows and the like," he said. One possibility would be to "tack on" an arts, educational and cultural center that could house about 2,000 people, he said.

Ms. Parker thinks such a facility would only enhance Merriweather. She notes that Nederlander recently opened a new venue in Hartford, Conn., in which the pavilion portion is open-air in summer but enclosed in the winter, making it an all-year facility. A similar facility opened in Camden, N.J., this year.

If that's the future of concert venues, a similar conversion could happen here. "Part of the whole foundation of the Rouse Co. is its ability to plan," Ms. Parker said.

Mr. Scavo agrees that the pavilion offers great potential. "The park is an underutilized asset, high in amenities," Mr. Scavo said. "Where so close to Washington and Baltimore could you find a place so beautiful, so relaxing, so wonderful?"

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