Every summer, fans at Merriweather Post Pavilion lay down their blankets, sing along and sometimes dance to their favorite band under an open sky. For four decades, the amphitheater has featured a diverse group of musical acts from the National Symphony to the Grateful Dead to Britney Spears.
So almost two years ago, when the venue's owner announced plans to enclose the amphitheater and sell it, many fans and residents reacted passionately. And ever since, the controversy has lingered over Columbia, tied up in several drawn-out deliberations.
From recent letter campaigns and speak-outs at public forums, it is clear many residents believe in the importance of the debate over Merriweather. Community leaders have said they believe the future of downtown Columbia is intertwined with that of Merriweather. "It's just too important," said Ian Kennedy, co-leader of advocacy group Save Merriweather. "We'll find a way to save it."
In July 1967, Merriweather opened as the second public building in Columbia. It was planned by architect Frank Gehry, famous for designing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
It took eight months and $1 million to build the simple pavilion and grounds in Columbia.
The pavilion was designed to be open-sided and surrounded by beech trees. Built to include state-of-the-art acoustics, the amphitheater was intended to be the summer home of the National Symphony, and it was named for one of the group's key patrons, Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Financial problems, however, forced the symphony to leave the pavilion after two seasons, and the pavilion's managers began turning to musical acts that would draw bigger crowds -- bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Who.
Throughout the 1970s, rock 'n' roll was simultaneously celebrated and resented in the community. The rowdy bands brought in much-needed profits, but also violence, drug use and other problems.
The Howard County Council passed a bill in 1972 granting it the authority to veto acts that were likely to draw troublesome crowds. Leon Russell and Rod Stewart found themselves rejected.
But rock and popular music quickly made a comeback as the Nederlander Organization sought money-making acts for Merriweather from 1974 to 1999.
Among other notable performances, the Grateful Dead anniversary concert in 1985 brought in droves of fans, who camped in Symphony Woods, swarmed The Mall in Columbia for food and bathed in a Columbia fountain.
Today, Merriweather is operated by Bethesda-based I.M.P., which also runs the 9:30 Club in Washington.
This year's first show, April 16, will feature music group Maroon 5, which won a Grammy last month for best new artist. And the lineup for the rest of the season is to include: Velvet Revolver, Santana and Los Lonely Boys and Jack Johnson.
I.M.P. has a contract that lasts through this year, but after that, the Columbia amphitheater faces an uncertain future.
General Growth Properties, which owns Merriweather, is trying to build office and retail buildings on 51.7 acres of surrounding undeveloped land.
As the last significant undeveloped parcel in Town Center, the area -- called the crescent property -- could set the direction of Columbia's downtown for years to come, say residents and officials. General Growth acquired the crescent property and Merriweather in November when it bought the Rouse Co., which built Columbia.
But if the land is developed, the amphitheater could face a severe shortage of parking.
Meanwhile, General Growth has been looking to sell Merriweather. Last year, County Executive James N. Robey appointed a panel of business and community leaders to investigate whether the county should buy the pavilion.
But complicating matters, General Growth has insisted that it will sell Merriweather only to a buyer who will turn the outdoor amphitheater into a smaller, indoor venue.
Robey's panel, however, has said the opposite: that the county should buy Merriweather only if it remains an outdoor venue, because according to the panel, that is the only way it can be profitable.
One new idea that has emerged is to hold off all action until a "master plan" has been drafted for downtown Columbia. In a rare consensus on a single issue, Columbia's 10 village boards have united to argue for the master-plan approach.
The Columbia Association, which has no authority over either issue, has volunteered to lead the effort to draft a master plan through an intense summit, called a charrette, which would be held over seven consecutive days.
The County Council also might endorse the master-plan approach through legislation. The council, which also acts as county Zoning Board, has held public hearings to discuss revising rules, called New Town Zoning, that govern development in Columbia. By revising New Town Zoning, the county could influence what can be built on the crescent property.
"The public has expressed a clear desire to see downtown developed comprehensively rather than piecemeal, one parcel at a time," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat and chairman of the Zoning Board.
Though Merriweather's future is uncertain, most of the people involved in the debate agree: the controversy is not likely to die soon.
Kennedy, the Merriweather advocate, grimaces when he considers a seemingly endless future of meetings.
"But it's important to go," he said. "Merriweather is this county's crown jewel."