When Howard County began looking into buying Merriweather Post Pavilion, the prospect energized local arts leaders, who hoped to transform the pavilion from a pop and rock concert venue into a cultural arts village, with different sections for art exhibits, theater and performances of classical music.
But a new study, presented to a citizens panel studying the possible purchase at a meeting Tuesday night, soundly rejected the idea, and disappointed arts boosters, who had hoped a county-owned Merriweather might lead to a revival of cultural arts in the community.
"That doesn't seem like a possibility now," said Valerie Lash, a member on the citizens panel and chairwoman of Howard Community College's Arts and Humanities Division. Lash and others said they agreed with the report's conclusions, but also found them discouraging.
"The performing arts face some never-ending challenges," said Duncan Webb, part of the team that produced the study. If Merriweather were turned into a cultural arts center, Webb said, it would encounter stiff competition from the Kennedy Center in Washington and Wolf Trap in Virginia, and find it virtually impossible to survive financially without heavy subsidies.
The study, however, produced useful research for the county's arts community: It showed that more small performing arts venues are needed.
"It proved that existing facilities keep having to turn groups away because there's not enough space for performances," said Lash, who oversees HCC's Smith Theatre.
Now the panel is focusing on whether the county should buy the pavilion as it now stands - an outdoor venue featuring rock and pop music concerts.
But that puts the county at odds with Merriweather's seller - the former Rouse Co., acquired last month by General Growth Properties. The company imposed two conditions when it offered Howard exclusive buying rights last summer: that the outdoor pavilion be turned into a smaller, enclosed venue and that the county make a decision by Dec. 20.
The panel, appointed by County Executive James N. Robey, now wants to keep Merriweather an outdoor pavilion and wants at least two more months to decide - enough time to view a second consultant report due in February that will focus on the costs of buying and operating Merriweather.
Dennis Miller, a General Growth Properties representative, declined to comment yesterday on whether his company would change either condition.
The draft report, prepared by a team of outside consultants, includes new figures that show Merriweather could be profitable if the county could afford to buy and maintain it as an outdoor venue.
Merriweather is a profitable facility, according to the study's 2004 figures. It generated reasonable profits for I.M.P., the management company hired last year to book shows for the pavilion. The report predicts higher profits in the future.
But buying Merriweather might be more costly than expected because of new estimates for work on the facility.
It could cost $15.4 million over several years to repair the aging structure and modify it to meet new requirements of accessibility to the disabled, said Hugh McCormick, an architectural consultant whose firm, Ziger/Snead, oversaw the study.
And unresolved is the problem of inadequate parking, flagged in the study as one of the most critical remaining issues. Panel Chairman Randall Griffin plans to form a committee within the citizen panel to study parking.
One frequently mentioned proposal - to share parking with The Mall in Columbia, which is nearby - was dismissed by the consultants, who mentioned other concert venues that had similar failed agreements. Another idea mentioned by panel members and the consultants is sharing the burdens of parking and financing.
"Solving the parking issue will be critical," Griffin said. "There's no project without the parking."