County weighs buying Merriweather

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard County officials announced yesterday that they are considering buying Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Columbia concert amphitheater whose future had been in doubt because of plans to develop adjacent land.

The county is planning to spend an estimated $50,000 to $100,0000 to study the feasibility of buying the theater from the Rouse Co. to preserve it as a performing arts venue. The state assessed Merriweather at $4.6 million as of January.

The amphitheater was built more than 3 1/2 decades ago, originally for classical music performances. But it now offers pop, rock and country acts, and over the years it has staged concerts by legendary rock groups such as Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Grateful Dead. It is also the primary spot for the county's high school graduations.

"Merriweather is a huge part of the Howard County community, both culturally and economically," said county spokeswoman Victoria Goodman. "It's a venue that the executive is very interested in preserving."

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, said the developer is selling the venue - and the 9 acres surrounding it, but not the parking lots - with the intent that it will be converted into an enclosed, year-round facility. Rouse has not set a price, and Miller said he has received a number of unsolicited bids but wants to give the county the first opportunity.

"I think the county would be a wonderful steward for maintaining the arts at the Merriweather," he said.

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said the county has been talking with Rouse for "quite a while" after the company unsuccessfully petitioned the county to develop the 60 acres surrounding the pavilion.

The company wanted to add more than 2,000 residences to the area in high-density development in an attempt to create an urban atmosphere for Columbia's downtown. Merriweather fans feared Rouse's plans would lead to the closing of the pavilion, which was designed by architect Frank Gehry and built in 1967 as one of the original amenities of the planned community.

"Merriweather really should be viewed as a gem of Howard County," Ulman said. "Instead of talking about shutting it down, we ought to be celebrating Merriweather and figuring out the best way to make it special."

Critics of sale

But the possibility of the sale has stirred up critics of County Executive James N. Robey, who are still seething over the 30 percent income tax rate increase that Robey, a Democrat, pushed through last year.

"[Buying Merriweather] would be an extraordinary act of nerve on Mr. Robey's part after ... poor-mouthing the financial condition of Howard County for the last two fiscal years," said Jim Oglethorpe, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, echoed those sentiments.

"Now, all of a sudden, it appears we're flush with cash to buy a multimillion-dollar entertainment facility?" he said.

The 15,000-capacity pavilion has had an uneven financial past. Miller, the Rouse Co. official, once likened operating the venue to selling ice cubes in the winter, explaining that the amphitheater is deteriorating and not profitable. Its viability has been called into question a number of times since the 25,000- capacity Nissan Pavilion opened in Bristow, Va., in 1995.

Last year, Merriweather had only 19 shows, compared with the 50 a year it had offered in the past.

But with the new management of Bethesda-based I.M.P. Inc., the pavilion has 16 shows so far this season, including a number of top acts - the Dave Matthews Band, Sarah McLachlan, Harry Connick Jr., and Kenny Chesney.

"Last year, there were some good shows, but there was a bunch of junk and filler," said Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P., which also owns the 9:30 Club in Washington. "We will do more people per show than has been done there in years."

Hurwitz would not disclose the length of his company's contract, but he said "if they're open for business and we're doing a good job, we're there ... for the near future."

Self-supporting venue

County Public Works Director James M. Irvin said the county would want Merriweather to be a self-supporting venue, and he said it is unlikely the county would manage it.

Although Rouse wants to see Merriweather converted into an enclosed theater, Irvin said the county will hire a consultant to study options for the venue, ranging from keeping it as an open-air amphitheater to enclosing it.

The study should be done by the end of the year, and the county will also appoint a citizen advisory panel to examine recommendations on purchasing and renovating the venue. If the process goes smoothly, the county could own the pavilion within a year, Irvin said.

Ulman said he anticipates a county-owned Merriweather would provide free family events for residents. He hopes the venue would remain similar to what it is today, with indoor and outdoor seating.

"I just think that when you look at the acts this summer, like Dave Matthews Band, Norah Jones and Harry Connick Jr., you're looking at a venue that can obviously book the top acts in the country," he said. "And why would you want to mess with that?"

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