Managers combat pavilion's reputation

Merriweather operators say venue is thriving

July 25, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The new management of Merriweather Post Pavilion is attempting to dispel the belief that the venue is a money-losing venture.

The outdoor amphitheater in Columbia had been characterized as unprofitable and deteriorating by its owner, the Rouse Co., which wants to covert it to an enclosed theater and is offering to sell it to Howard County. But this summer the pavilion is thriving with sellout shows for top acts including the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney, its operators say.

"There's no question we're going to make money this year," said Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P., which was hired last fall to manage the pavilion.

Merriweather manager Jean Parker said that since she started working at the pavilion in 1987, it has "never, ever lost a penny. It has always operated in the black."

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia who once likened operating the venue to selling ice cubes in the winter, maintains that Merriweather is not profitable because it's no longer host to 50 shows a year, as it once was.

"It's not a profitable operation. It has continued to decline with the number of performances," he said. "Because someone has said it's profitable, I don't know exactly how they're making their statements."

Hurwitz would not disclose the pavilion's financial numbers but said the perception about the pavilion was partly fueled by Clear Channel Entertainment Inc., the pavilion's previous manager.

Clear Channel also manages the larger Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va. -- the closest amphitheater that competes with Merriweather -- which some critics contended was a conflict of interest.

"It was in their interest to portray Merriweather as an outmoded venue to justify why all these acts were playing Nissan," Hurwitz said.

Wilson Rogers, a Clear Channel senior vice president and general manger, said the company managed Merriweather to the best of its ability.

"It's frivolous and very narrow to think that we didn't then and wouldn't now try to make that venue profitable," he said.

Rogers said Rouse wants to develop the land around Merriweather that is used for parking to make more money.

"No concert venue is ever going to overturn what the value of the land is given its best use," he said. "And a parking lot in the middle of downtown Columbia, Maryland, is not the best use of acreage."

Last year, Rouse petitioned the county zoning board to increase residential density in Columbia, with the aim of making downtown Columbia a vibrant urban core.

The company wanted to build about 1,600 residences on the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods, which surrounds the 9-acre Merriweather site and includes the pavilion's parking area.

The county denied Rouse's petition, and the company has appealed the decision to Howard County Circuit Court.

Rouse has offered to sell the pavilion to Howard County, which is preparing to examine the feasibility of buying the theater and preserving it as a performing-arts venue.

Feasibility study

Five firms have expressed interest in heading the feasibility study, and one will probably be chosen within a month, said county Public Works Director James M. Irvin.

If the county decides to buy the pavilion, it could do so by next summer, Irvin said. County Executive James N. Robey has said the deal would be financed not by taxes but by users and through fees to pay off revenue bonds.

Rouse is selling the venue with the intention that it will be converted into an enclosed, year-round theater.

"Under the new management, the quality of acts has truly improved, which is great," Miller said. "It's still a venue that's underutilized and needs to be utilized year-round."

Merriweather's viability has been called into question a number of times since the 25,000-capacity Nissan Pavilion opened in 1995. Merriweather has a capacity of 19,000, but I.M.P. will lower that number to make the crowd more comfortable in the lawn seats.

The number of shows has declined through the years. There were 19 last year. In recent years, Parker said, the big acts have included Jimmy Buffett in 2000 and last year, James Taylor in 2001, Phish in 2000 and a Tim McGraw-Kenny Chesney show in 2001.

More shows

I.M.P. has increased the number of shows -- 28 are scheduled this year -- and Parker said I.M.P. is booking acts that more people want to see.

"The quality of the schedule this year is a quantum leap over what it's been in recent years," she said.

The sold-out shows and bigger acts, such as Counting Crows and the Nickelback-3 Doors Down show last week -- which drew 10,000 and 12,000 concert-goers, respectively -- help subsidize the smaller shows, Hurwitz said. Harry Connick Jr., the Indigo Girls and Diana Krall each attracted an audience of fewer than 5,000.

"The arts-type events have lost a tremendous amount of money," Hurwitz said, "although I still feel they're important to the schedule and will continue to book them as long as we have the larger events, the home runs, to help support them."

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