Howard pavilion to stay open air

Merriweather's owner drops effort to enclose Columbia concert venue

Community had fought proposal

Company still intends to redevelop area now used for event parking

April 13, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The owners of Merriweather Post Pavilion -- a venerable concert venue that has played host to everyone from Janis Joplin to Evanescence in its nearly 40 years -- announced yesterday that the facility will remain open air.

General Growth Properties' decision settles the uncertainty that has swirled around the Columbia pavilion for two years and is being cheered by residents who have fought the development company's original plan to convert it into a smaller, enclosed theater in order to build on its parking area.

"It's excellent news; if we had a bottle of champagne, we'd be uncorking it right now," Merriweather manager Jean Parker said. "That makes more than my day; that makes my year."

Dennis Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, said the company still plans to develop the land adjacent to Merriweather that is used for parking. But he changed his mind that the venue -- one of Columbia's original amenities, built in 1967 -- should be enclosed after he saw that there could be enough parking available nearby for concertgoers without the parking lot.

He said he hopes the resurgence of interest in Merriweather translates into more people attending concerts there.

"If it's viable, if it has attendance, it can be an important piece to Town Center," Miller said.

General Growth had offered to sell Merriweather to Howard County on condition that the pavilion be converted into an enclosed theater. But a panel of residents appointed by County Executive James N. Robey recommended last month that the county buy it and preserve it as an open-air venue.

Victoria Goodman, the county's information director, said the county is pleased with General Growth's decision and is still interested in talking with the company about the pavilion. Miller said the offer to the county is still on the table.

"I will always listen to anyone who wants to speak to me about purchasing something," he said.

The pavilion opens its season Saturday with a Maroon 5 concert. So far, 13 shows have been booked at the pavilion this season, including OAR; the Pixies and Sonic Youth; Oasis and Jet; Green Day; and Tom Petty and the Black Crowes.

"I always knew it was a great venue that bands loved to play and people loved to go see concerts at," said Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P., which manages the pavilion. "And I knew it was just a matter of time before everyone else figured that out."

Merriweather's future fell into doubt in 2003, when Miller, then with the Rouse Co., announced that, as part of plans to build residential units on the 51.7 acres adjacent to the pavilion, the venue would be converted into an enclosed theater. Miller likened operating the venue to selling ice cubes in the winter and maintained that the 19,000-capacity Merriweather is not profitable because it no longer presents 50 shows a year, as it once did.

The development plan was loudly opposed by the community and denied by the Howard County Zoning Board. Throughout eight hearings, including a final meeting that ended at 4 a.m., residents testified that they did not want the development to lead to the demise of Merriweather.

The company submitted another plan last year to commercially develop the area and was again met with strong community resistance. The Howard County Planning Board has yet to rule on the matter.

In response to the development plans, Columbia residents Ian Kennedy and Justin Carlson founded Save Merriweather. They and others attended Planning Board and Zoning Board hearings, distributed information at Merriweather concerts and created a political action committee to support candidates who wanted to preserve the pavilion as an open-air venue.

"Save Merriweather didn't create the community's feeling about Merriweather, we just channeled them, helped organize them," Carlson said.

According to a report by the architectural firm of Ziger/Snead, commissioned by the county, the pavilion needs about $19.5 million worth of renovations, including $1.5 million to raise the ceiling of the pavilion, which could attract bigger stars and consequently more revenue.

The number of shows had been declining in recent years -- with 19 in 2003 -- and it lost some to the 25,000-capacity Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va., which opened in 1995.

However, when I.M.P. took over pavilion management last season, it boosted its performance. Last summer, it attracted an array of acts, with shows ranging from sellouts for the Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney, to smaller acts such as Indigo Girls and Diana Krall.

"Last year, it was a constant battle to fight the perception that Merriweather was on slippery ground, which I suppose it was," Hurwitz said. "Yet this year, we're on firmer ground, and with [the General Growth] announcement, it's only going to help."

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