Keep Merriweather open-air, operator asks

Company that manages Howard venue opposes plan for enclosed theater

September 29, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The management of the Merriweather Post Pavilion is lobbying for the venue to remain an open-air amphitheater, despite the Rouse Co.'s assertion that it will be an enclosed theater.

Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P., which was hired last fall to manage the Columbia amphitheater, said an enclosed facility would be a money-losing venture because it wouldn't attract the larger acts that pay the bills.

The only reason that the pavilion has so far cleared almost $140,000 in a 12-month period that began in November last year is because of sell-out shows for the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney, who likely wouldn't play at a smaller theater, he said.

Those larger acts helped allow the venue to have shows such as the Indigo Girls and Diana Krall, each of which attracted an audience of fewer than 5,000.

The venue's final concert for the season is scheduled to be Incubus on Oct 11.

"There's no reason in the world to build a smaller, enclosed facility," Hurwitz recently told a citizens panel studying whether Howard County should buy the pavilion from Rouse. "If this was simply an enclosed facility, it would go out of business real fast."

If given the chance, Hurwitz said, he can make Merriweather "one of the best in the country for live music outdoors."

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, said that Rouse last week renewed I.M.P's contract to manage Merriweather for a year and said of the panel's work, "Let them go through their independent deliberations."

Hurwitz said he is operating as if it is business as usual and is working on lining up acts for next season.

"As far as I know, there are no plans for either the facility or the parking lot that would affect next year's season," he said.

Randall Griffin, chairman of the citizens committee, said the group is in the early stages of its studies. But he said, "I think that all indications seem to be that having a smaller, enclosed facility is not as economically viable as one might think."

The panel is scheduled to meet again Oct. 20, when it will hold a public hearing in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building.

Rouse officials maintain that Merriweather, which was built in 1967 as one of the planned community's original amenities, is not profitable because it is no longer host to 50 shows a year, as it once was.

Rouse has offered to sell Merriweather to the county as an enclosed, year-round theater. The 15-member citizens advisory committee and the Baltimore architectural firm Ziger/Snead are studying the matter and are to have their reports done by the end of the year.

Rouse is aiming to develop the 51-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods, which surrounds the 9-acre pavilion site and includes the venue's parking area. The county Planning Board is to consider the matter Oct. 5.

Although Rouse consented to be acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. in a $12.6 billion deal that was announced last month and must be approved by Rouse shareholders, the development company is still moving ahead with plans to sell Merriweather and develop the land adjacent to it.

The push for commercial development comes after the county Zoning Board denied Rouse's request to build about 1,600 residences on the site, with the aim of making downtown Columbia a vibrant urban core.

Hurwitz pointed out the fiscal reality of the land that Merriweather patrons use for parking.

"Whatever we're paying in rent now, [Rouse] can make a lot more developing that parking lot," he said.

The developable land provides almost 4,500 parking spaces, Merriweather manager Jean Parker said.

Parker predicts an enclosed theater would probably host about 60 shows that would attract 3,000 people each. The venue - which had 26 shows this season - now attracts about 225,000 people a year, she said.

She said one of the problems with enclosing the venue is that its amenities - the bathrooms and the concession stands - are on the perimeter of the property.

If the venue - which seats 5,000 under its roof and 10,000 on its sloping lawn - were to remain an amphitheater for the next generation, it would need at least $5 million in repairs, Parker said.

The needed improvements include renovating restrooms, regrading the south plaza to make it handicapped-accessible, installing drainage around the pathways to reduce erosion, replacing some seating and adding mezzanine seating, adding more backstage parking, renovating the main box office and providing a drive-through option.

Since I.M.P. took over management of the pavilion from Clear Channel Entertainment Inc., it has made a number of renovations. New video screens have been installed beside the stage and on the outside of the structure; more benches were installed; and a new food vendor was hired.

Parker told the citizens committee that Merriweather has the allure to attract major acts and fans.

"Think long and hard about getting rid of it," Parker said. " ... If it wasn't here, we feel very strongly someone would want to build one."

Hurwitz said the venue - which was designed by architect Frank Gehry - only gets better with age. He said newer pavilions lack character and likened them to casinos that are solely built to take consumers' money.

"Bands, just like you, want to go to somewhere that's real," Hurwitz said. " ... This place has a friendliness, a vibe that you can't build, you can't replace."

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