When pop princess Britney Spears steps onto the stage of Merriweather Post Pavilion in June, thousands of screaming fans will finally get an up-close look at their teen-age idol -- and at a major renovation of Columbia's prime concert arena.
The 33-year-old open-air theater will undergo a $750,000 face lift that includes covered box seats with wait staff, expanded parking and seating for the disabled and more concession stands.
A main plaza area inside the pavilion will be enlarged, making room for the additional concession stands and a customer service kiosk. Parking lot lighting will be improved, additional stage spotlights will be added, and there will be extra picnic tables.
Merriweather's manager, SFX Entertainment Inc., plans for the renovations to be completed in time for the summer concert season, according to Jean Parker, the amphitheater's general manager.
The hope is that the expensive renovations can entice bigger musical acts and more audience members into the pavilion, Parker said.
"People have come to expect a lot from stadiums and arenas now," Parker said. "We're in one of the few markets in the country that has had five new major entertainment facilities built in the last six years."
Built in 1967, Merriweather Post Pavilion competes regionally with state-of-the-art arenas and stadiums, including 25,000-seat Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va.; PSINet Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore; the Redskins' stadium, FedEx Field in Landover; and the MCI Center in Washington.
Merriweather managers are "now in the position of having to retrofit" the entire facility, Parker said. "There's no way we would be able to build anything like this from scratch. It just makes the best business sense to use this approach."
SFX Entertainment, the largest concert promoter in the country, last year purchased the lease to Merriweather from the New York-based Nederlander organization, which had managed the pavilion since 1974. SFX paid $94 million for seven Nederlander properties, including Merriweather and other similar-size venues in Chicago, Cincinnati and Albuquerque, N.M.
Nederlander had made a number of improvements to Merriweather before the 1997 and 1998 summer concert seasons. The loading docks were expanded, covered staging areas were added, and the main stage's power was upgraded from 1,600 to 2,400 amps.
Backstage improvements to the dressing rooms and the catering facilities were also added.
But despite the costly series of renovations by Nederlander and SFX, Merriweather may be a casualty of size, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar magazine and a music industry analyst.
"A 15,000-seat amphitheater just can't compete on the same level with a newer, larger facility," said Bongiovanni.
"But the Nissan Pavilion is also an SFX facility, so the competition isn't as intense as it" used to be. If SFX used its money to offer more covered seats at Merriweather, the venue might be able to compete with the larger Nissan Pavilion, he said.
"The move toward having more seats [as opposed to lawn seating] allows them to sell the seats at a premium," Bongiovanni said. "At this point in the game, no one's going to pay for general seating."
Parker believes Merriweather is in competition with "anybody who has discretionary dollars for concerts and sporting events -- even places like smaller club dates or movies where people spend their entertainment money."
SFX manages more than 80 venues around the country, including the Nissan Pavilion.
This year, SFX is producing a number of big concerts, including Britney Spears' much-hyped summer concert tour. She will perform at Nissan Pavilion on June 18 and at Merriweather two days later -- effectively doing away with the dueling regional amphitheaters.
The Rouse Co. remains Merriweather's landlord and owner, and Rouse officials are hoping the lease acquisition will mean more concerts at the 15,000-capacity amphitheater and bigger acts during the summer season, which lasts from the end of May until the end of September.
Over the years, Merriweather has played host to such popular acts as Elton John, Jimmy Buffett and Aretha Franklin. In recent years, some acts have forgone Merriweather for Nissan, opting for bigger paydays at the newer amphitheater.
According to the company, SFX produced or promoted 12,650 events in 31 of the top 50 markets in the United States last year. As many as 37 million people saw shows at SFX-run venues.
Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's largest radio company, announced plans last week to acquire concert promoter SFX for $2.9 billion in stock.