Columbia gears up for HFStival

The two-day event could be largest ever at Merriweather

some residents, officials nervous

May 21, 2006|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

It is expected to be the largest concert event to hit Merriweather Post Pavilion in decades -- maybe ever -- and organizers of next weekend's HFStival are working to ensure that the fans not only enjoy their stay but are good guests of the planned community.

The outdoor concert pavilion is expanding its capacity, as well as its grounds, for a festival boasting a lineup of 60 acts, including Kanye West, Cyprus Hill, Counting Crows, the Strokes, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, over two days during Memorial Day weekend.

"It's a huge deal. It's one of the biggest concerts on the East Coast," said Ian Kennedy, president of the advocacy group Save Merriweather. "It's nationally known; huge artists come here. You can't get more high-profile than the HFStival in this area."

In its 17th year, the HFStival, sponsored by radio station WHFS (105.7 FM), will be the first event for which Merriweather has expanded its capacity -- from 20,000 patrons to 27,500 each day, Parker said.

Merriweather manager Jean Parker believes the event will be the largest ever held at the 38-year-old pavilion, based on records the staff has reviewed dating back to at least the 1970s.

"It certainly is a huge economic impact for the county and certainly Columbia," she said. "And it's a major event for Merriweather as an entertainment venue."

To accommodate the extra people, the venue is adding about 8 acres to its 10-acre site by expanding into Symphony Woods and the pavilion's west parking lot, where stages will be set up. The entire perimeter will be fenced in, Parker said.

Inside the fence will be as many as 250 places to buy beer and wine -- the number of areas will be based on attendance, Parker said. The area will be fully patrolled, she said.

"The police work all of our events," Parker said. "Add to that, we have crowd-control staff, operations staff, ushers and ticket takers. ... There will be plenty of staff without [concertgoers] feeling overwhelmed."

Sherry Llewellyn, a Howard County police spokeswoman, also said police will maintain a strong presence in the venue, as well as control traffic.

"There will be significant staffing to make sure that order is maintained and to provide general security," she said. "Our goal really is to help ensure a safe event for everyone."

Still, some Columbia residents can't help but wonder whether the event will resemble the Grateful Dead concerts of the mid-1980s, about which Columbia Association board member Barbara Russell said concertgoers were "a pain in the neck to the community."

"Their fans were not all that considerate of their surroundings, and they did things like bathe in Lake Kittamaqundi ... and they slept in, you know, cars and tents," said Russell, who represents Oakland Mills.

"I'm a little concerned," Russell added, and the memory of the Grateful Dead "is why some people are concerned, too."

Resident John L. Preston expects the authorities to control the crowd and illegal behavior to the best of their ability, though he is still concerned about illegal drug use and said, "I don't want that in Columbia."

Preston also believes that an event like the HFStival doesn't belong at a venue such as Merriweather. He points to the festival site last year: Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, where the event drew about 53,000 people with bands such as Coldplay, Good Charlotte and the Foo Fighters.

"I just think it's an imposition on Columbia to have that kind of show here, in the backyards of so many people," he said.

Columbia Association board member Philip Kirsch of Wilde Lake, however, feels that the people at the HFStival will be a "slightly different crowd" than Grateful Dead fans, and he is confident about the preparations.

"The people running Merriweather seem to be very well-organized; they seem to know exactly what they're doing," Kirsch said. "If you put 20,000 people here, I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two incidents, but I assume there's always something like that every time."

Parker said she expects the concert to draw from the Mid-Atlantic region and include fans who likely have been to the venue before, and "they respected the facility in the past, and I don't see why it would be any different."

Parker also predicts the area might not be as congested as some fear, with no more cars than other major events in Town Center. The number of cars for an event such as the HFStival, which draws a young crowd, typically is lower than for events such as a jazz festival, which tends to attract older adults who arrive two to a car.

Parker expects concertgoers at the HFStival to travel more than two to a car or possibly have their parents drop them off, leading to fewer cars in the area. She expects that each day there will be fewer than 7,000 cars, which can be parked at the venue's lot or at the surrounding parking lots in the downtown area.

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