Tickets seen as source of funds for pavilion

Robey says tax revenue won't buy Merriweather

Users, fees would cover cost

Theater could be run by a revenue authority

July 04, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Howard County would finance a proposed purchase of Merriweather Post Pavilion with ticket sales and concessions, not tax revenue, county officials said.

Responding to critics who say the proposal would drain county coffers, County Executive James N. Robey said the government could run the amphitheater as it does Timbers at Troy, a county-owned golf course in Elkridge where course revenues are used to pay off revenue bonds.

"This has nothing to do with our current capital budget, or with our operating budget," said Robey, a Democrat. "The taxpayers aren't going to pay for Merriweather. It will be paid for by users, through fees."

The Rouse Co., which owns Merriweather, has not put a price on the pavilion, whose future has been put in doubt because of the company's plans to develop adjacent land. The state's most recent assessment for tax purposes put Merriweather's value at $4.6 million.

Rouse is selling only the pavilion and related facilities that sit on a gated 9-acre tract. The company plans to retain and develop the parking area, which is part of a 60-acre crescent that surrounds the concert parcel.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said the county could create a revenue authority to oversee Merriweather similar to a Baltimore County entity that finances parking garages and golf courses.

"Almost every single county has a revenue authority," he said. "That's the kind of a tool that Howard County needs."

Public Works Director James M. Irvin said the only money the county has dedicated so far to the Merriweather proposal is $50,000 to $100,0000 to study the feasibility of buying the facility and renovating it. A possible purchase of the 15,000-capacity pavilion would likely be in the fiscal 2006 budget, and the county would not pay cash for it, he said.

"There are too many other competing needs," Irvin said. "It would have to be sort of a creative financing arrangement to make this happen."

Such assertions don't satisfy critics of the proposal.

Council Republicans express doubts about Robey's assertion that the county's Merriweather purchase wouldn't cost taxpayers. They say the pavilion has not proven in recent years to be a financially viable entertainment venue.

Rouse maintains that Merriweather, which was built in 1967 as one of Columbia's original amenities, is not profitable. Last year, the venue had only 19 shows, compared with the 50 a year it had offered in the past.

However, this year the pavilion is under the management of Bethesda-based IMP Inc., which has booked 16 shows to date, including two top acts with sold-out shows, the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney. The company has also booked the McDonald's Sessions at Merriweather concert series.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, questions whether the county could keep Merriweather afloat financially.

"If the private sector couldn't turn a profit or make it self-sustaining, I don't know how the county government could do that," Merdon said.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said the county should be providing services that are crucial - education, public safety and transportation - not entertainment.

"I think [Robey is] thinking that, `Oh my gosh, what if Merriweather closes? Then we're going to lose a jewel in our county.' Well, are you going to buy the Enchanted Forest?" Kittleman said, referring to the shuttered Ellicott City theme park.

"The purpose of the government is to provide essential services that aren't really provided by the private industry," Kittleman said.

But council Chairman Guy Guzzone pointed out that the county is already involved in entertainment, having built the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School and in staging Wine in the Woods in Columbia.

"I think that in the long run, we want to do whatever we can to save Merriweather," said Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "It's an important focal point of our community."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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