Merriweather Post Pavilion's future Still a good site: Newer venues have created stiff competition for Columbia amphitheater.

October 21, 1997

ADVERSITY ISN'T NEW at Merriweather Post Pavilion, which now faces stiff competition from newer outdoor concert venues in the region.

When Merriweather Post opened 30 years ago, a storm drenched musicians and spectators. Then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who was in attendance, termed it a ''baptism.'' The Columbia facility -- designed on a sloping site by now-famed architect Frank O. Gehry -- has weathered its share of setbacks ever since. The National Symphony Orchestra abandoned plans to adopt it as a summer home. Nearby residents have occasionally complained about noise. And for at least its first 10 years, Merriweather Post lost money.

Recently, the 15,000-person capacity Merriweather Post has lost top-name performers to newer locales in Northern Virginia -- the Nissan Pavilion near Manassas, which accommodates 25,000, and the federally subsidized Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, which seats 7,000. The competition may be reflected in the 15 percent downturn in admission and amusement tax revenues collected by Howard County.

The company that promotes concerts at Nissan sought earlier this year to build a 20,000-seat amphitheater between Westminster and Finksburg in Carroll County.

It also explored sites in northern Anne Arundel and Baltimore County for a pavilion that would challenge Merriweather Post. For various reasons, those plans have not proceeded.

Merriweather Post's initial intent was to host classical music performances, but it never became Maryland's version of Tanglewood in Massachusetts. Lawn seats and Rachmaninoff did not mix in Columbia.

But Merriweather Post is not over the hill. Occasional sellouts like last summer's Lilith Fair concert proves it still can hit the high note. Near a major highway, U.S. 29, it handles traffic before and after events better than other venues. Whether Maryland needs to respond, and how to do so, poses a dilemma. While it doesn't want to cede a major chunk of entertainment business across the Potomac, an in-state competitor might siphon off enough shows to truly harm Merriweather Post.

The idealism that conceived the facility in the '60s has bumped up against business realism in the '90s.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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