Pavilion deadline firm, says owner


General Growth Properties Inc. has refused to extend a Monday deadline for Howard County to decide whether to buy Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, County Executive James N. Robey said last night.

Interviewed before his annual public budget hearing in Ellicott City, Robey said General Growth Vice President Dennis Miller told him late Tuesday that the deadline would not be extended, and that several private firms have expressed interest in buying the outdoor music pavilion.

The meeting took place in Robey's office, and Miller offered no explanation for his decision other than to say "that was what he had committed to and he was sticking to it," Robey said.

The executive sent Miller a letter yesterday expressing his disappointment at the decision.

"Hopefully, his decision won't affect our work," Robey said, referring to a citizens committee exploring the feasibility of a public purchase of the venue. The committee also plans to produce by February a business plan for operating the facility. Miller was not available for comment last night.

I.M.P., the firm operating Merriweather, has a contract through next year and might be interested in buying the pavilion, said co-owner Seth Hurwitz. But, like the county citizens panel, I.M.P. wants to keep it an outdoor venue.

"I love my house and car too much," Hurwitz said. "It would be impossible to turn a profit with an enclosed pavilion."

The former Rouse Co. said it would sell the pavilion only if the county agreed to make it an indoor venue. At its last meeting, the citizen panel indicated it wanted to keep the pavilion as is - a large amphitheater attracting concerts of popular music.

The refusal to grant the county more time came as a surprise, said citizens panel Chairman Rand Griffin.

At the panel's last meeting, Dec. 7, it scheduled its next hearing for early next month, optimistic that General Growth would extend the Dec. 20 deadline. A consultant's report released that night said the pavilion could effectively function as an outdoor amphitheater, but needs $15 million in renovations.

Under the current offer, made this summer, the company had given the county exclusive buying rights until Monday.

"If they wanted to treat that literally, I suppose they could offer it to others once it expires," Griffin said. "But from a practical standpoint it might be difficult. If someone wants to buy it, they'd have to make all the required improvements we were looking at."

General Growth, the firm that bought the Rouse Co., wants to develop Merriweather's parking lots as part of a plan to add more homes and businesses in Columbia. The proposal to enclose the pavilion for year-round use would make it smaller, requiring less parking.

But Robey said that even a smaller theater would need more parking than the pavilion site will allow.

"It's very dispiriting," said Ian Kennedy, co-leader of advocacy group Save Merriweather. "We thought with a new company coming in, they would have that cooperative spirit that the old Rouse company used to have."

Still, after a year and half of late meetings, handing out fliers, and making protest T-shirts, Kennedy said his group has not given up hope.

"The holidays are not an easy time to just drop everything and go on the Merriweather issue, but if this means we have to give up some things to start putting on pressure, I guess we'll find a way," he said. "It's just too important."

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