Howard's rights to venue set to expire

Merriweather becoming available to other buyers

December 19, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Howard County's exclusive rights to buy Merriweather Post Pavilion will expire tomorrow, making the amphitheater available to other buyers, some of which already have expressed interest, said a representative of General Growth Properties Inc., which owns the Columbia property.

"This doesn't mean the county can't make an offer later," said Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager of Columbia. "The county still has a significant advantage after putting six months of work into studying it."

County Executive James N. Robey's request of General Growth to extend the deadline was denied last week.

"We gave our commitment until Dec. 20, and we're honoring that commitment," Miller said. "We're being predictable."

General Growth has not set a cut-off date for offers to buy Merriweather, Miller said, and the amphitheater's operator, IMP, has a contract to continue holding concerts through 2005.

County officials asked for more time because a study by consultants detailing a business plan for operating the property won't be ready until February. The county is still interested in the purchase but only as an outdoor facility.

General Growth continues to insist that it will sell the pavilion only to a buyer that will convert it into a smaller, indoor venue. Miller said Friday that other potential buyers that would enclose the facility have expressed interest.

Consultants hired by the county have concluded that the venue would not be viable or profitable if it were enclosed.

"You'd have to add walls, electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling. It has no insulation, no lobby," said architecture consultant Hugh McCormick. "The amount it would cost to enclose it approaches the cost of building an entirely new theater."

Even if a buyer enclosed it, the consultants said, there is no demand in the region for such a large indoor theater. "The market just isn't there," said arts and music consultant Duncan Webb.

The county residents panel appointed by Robey to advise him on the possible purchase issued its preliminary recommendations Friday, saying, "it would be in the public interest to preserve and maintain Merriweather for future benefit of the county and its citizens."

The letter, written by panel Chairman Randall Griffin and sent to Robey, also offers some solutions for the impending parking problem. Concertgoers park on the crescent-shaped property around Merriweather. General Growth, however, wants to build office and retail buildings on the land.

The letter recommends creating parking agreements with nearby office buildings, many owned by General Growth, or building parking garages on the nearby Symphony Woods property.

"Without solving the parking capacity issue, the county should not proceed with the purchase," the letter reads. The residents panel still plans to meet early next month. The county planning board reviewing General Growth's proposal to build on the 51.7 acres will meet Jan. 6.

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