Pleas heard to keep venue

About 80 residents have their say on pavilion

It `symbolizes all that's right'

County ponders buying Merriweather Post


October 21, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

After months of meetings at which the public mostly played spectator, about 80 Columbia residents got their say last night and pleaded for the preservation Merriweather Post Pavilion as an outdoor amphitheater.

A citizen panel examining whether Howard County should buy Merriweather from the Rouse Co. held the meeting to hear from the public, and got an earful - some telling sentimental stories, reminiscing about their favorite concerts. Others recounted milestones experienced there, including graduations, first concerts and first jobs.

"In many ways, Merriweather symbolizes all that's right with Columbia and all that could be wrong," said Justin Carlson, cofounder of the activist group Save Merriweather. Columbia is fast becoming like any other suburb, he said, adding, "Merriweather sets it apart."

The future of Merriweather and the land surrounding it is being weighed by the 15- member citizen panel appointed by County Executive James N. Robey in July and the Howard County Planning Board.

The citizen panel - composed of business and arts leaders - is supposed to make its recommendation to Robey by the end of the year.

The county has hired consultants for $54,000 to advise the panel and Robey on the costs of buying, running and maintaining Merriweather. The consultant report is to be presented at the next meeting of the citizen group, scheduled for Nov. 16.

The Planning Board's focus is the crescent-shaped 51.7-acre property surrounding the amphitheater - land that is central to the issue because it is used for concert parking.

The Planning Board has scheduled a meeting for Nov. 4 at which it might vote on a proposal by Rouse to develop the land into retail and office buildings.

Rouse has made clear its plans to develop the land and turn Merriweather into a smaller, indoor and year-round venue. At the first meeting of the citizen panel, Rouse representatives said they would sell Merriweather only on that condition.

"Everything is negotiable," said Randall Griffin, chairman of the citizen panel. "I think it would be a mistake to blindly accept Rouse's proposal without thinking of the long-range needs of the county."

Rouse has given the county exclusive rights to buy Merriweather until the end of the year. It also promised at a related hearing two weeks ago not to build big-box stores on the land - a possibility that had angered many residents.

Complicating matters, Rouse is in the process of being sold to Chicago-based General Growth Properties, and it is not clear what the new company will do with interests in Columbia. A Rouse stockholder vote on the sale is expected Nov. 9.

Whatever happens, the succeeding company will honor the promises of exclusive buying rights and no big-box stores, said Dennis Miller, a Rouse vice president.

Last night, arts leaders on the citizen panel discussed the merits of enclosing Merriweather and creating an arts village around it. However, Merriweather advocates repeated their view that a smaller venue would no longer attract top acts.

"Part of the [town's] original vision was culture for the community," said Richard Burger, who has lived in Columbia for 24 years. "This place brings us culture."

"Merriweather is a piece of art," said resident Hugh Tousey, 70. "Do you destroy art to create art?"

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