Keep Merriweather open-air, consultant says


After months of debate, study and impassioned testimony, a panel appointed by the Howard County government indicated yesterday that the county may be interested in buying Merriweather Post Pavilion, but not as an enclosed, year-round facility.

That put the citizens panel - appointed by the county executive to study the issue - at odds with the offer by the former Rouse Co., which said during the summer it would sell the outdoor pavilion only if the buyer agreed to turn it into an indoor venue.

At a meeting last night, consultants hired by the county to examine the local entertainment industry and the feasibility of buying Merriweather gave the panel their initial report.

They concluded that Merriweather should not be enclosed and that the facility would be most viable and profitable as it now stands - a large amphitheater attracting concerts of popular music.

The panel chairman, Randall Griffin, said the consultants' conclusions matched the panel's initial feelings.

"It seems like we're moving increasingly in that direction," Griffin said.

But questions remain on the possible acquisition, according to the consultant's report, including the inadequate parking and costs estimated at $15.4 million for repairs and maintenance over the next five to 10 years.

Thus, the panel voted to ask General Growth Properties Inc. - which acquired Rouse last month, along with properties including Merriweather - for more time to make a recommendation.

Under the current offer, the county has less than two weeks to decide whether to buy the pavilion. Rouse had given the county exclusive buying rights until Dec. 20.

Last night's meeting was the panel's first since the Rouse Co. was acquired by General Growth.

Griffin said he believed the company would extend the deadline. The panel is scheduled to meet next month.

The report presented last night was overseen by the Baltimore architectural consulting firm of Ziger/Snead. It included an extensive briefing on the history and state of the entertainment industry.

The report clearly opposed one early proposal among panel members to turn Merriweather into a performance arts center, dedicated to such cultural programs as symphonies, plays and ballet.

"Do not turn it into a cultural, enclosed [venue]," warned art and music consultant Duncan Webb, a member of the study team. "Our research showed that the community needs better and more small cultural venues, but not a high demand for a larger venue like Merriweather."

Instead, Webb suggested the county approach the need for more cultural centers as a separate problem.

One of the largest unresolved issues in the possible purchase, Griffin said, was the price and how the county would pay it.

County Executive James N. Robey will make the final decision whether to buy Merriweather.

In recent weeks, he has lobbied for the creation of a quasi-governmental county revenue authority that could be used to finance purchasing Merriweather among other county projects. To get approval for its creation, he needs the support of two of the county's three state senators - one of whom, Republican Allan H. Kittleman, has voiced strong opposition to the county buying Merriweather.

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