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Sale Puts Pavilion in Uncertain Stage

Owner, Columbia Divided on Plans For Merriweather

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page B01

The audience sits under a canopy of trees, near two red-roofed barns and an old farmhouse, as music wafts through the air on warm nights in Columbia. For years, concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion have evoked a scene that is a combination of Tanglewood and Woodstock.

But steps beyond the grounds of the 38-year-old open-air amphitheater, music lovers find themselves in the commercial heart of Howard County. Nearby are hundreds of apartments, dozens of restaurants, a major shopping mall and much new construction. And therein lies a modern tale of suburban tension.

Despite the owner's eagerness to sell, a community panel recommended that Merriweather Post Pavilion in Howard County continue hosting large concerts and perhaps become the focus of a performing arts village. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

The amphitheater will open its season April 16 under a cloud of uncertainty.

A community panel recommended this month that Merriweather should continue to host large concerts and perhaps become the focal point of a performing arts village.

Beyond its blockbuster concerts -- including the Grateful Dead, the Who, Norah Jones and the Dave Matthews Band over the decades -- Merriweather is a stage for high school graduations, a popular community wine festival, a winter lights festival and other such events.

But the company's owner, General Growth Properties, has other plans. Vice President Dennis W. Miller has said for more than a year that the company is eager to sell the concert venue, but only to someone willing to turn it into a smaller, enclosed facility. The company hopes to develop 51 acres next to Merriweather.

The amphitheater came into General Growth's possession last year when the shopping mall company spent $7.2 billion to purchase the Rouse Co., whose founder, James Rouse, built Columbia, revived Baltimore's Inner Harbor and created a model for planned communities.

General Growth gave Howard County until late December to decide whether it wanted to buy Merriweather. When that deadline expired, Miller said he would begin to show the property to other prospective purchasers. None has expressed interest, at least not publicly.

A consultant working with the community panel that weighed the venue's future recommended saving Merriweather, calling it an irreplaceable regional gem. The consultant, Ziger/Snead of Baltimore, also recommended about $20 million in improvements -- upgrades that its analysts said soon would pay for themselves.

Ziger/Snead also dismissed General Growth's proposal for an indoor, smaller venue, saying that the market between Washington and Baltimore is saturated with small halls, some of them not doing too well and others costing millions more than Merriweather. One that opened recently, the Music Center at Strathmore -- which seats 2,000 indoors in an elegant setting in nearby Montgomery -- cost almost $100 million, most of it from public funds.

Several panel members suggested that General Growth's call for a smaller facility could be rooted in the company's plan for high-end development around the pavilion.

Someone buying a posh condominium that would overlook Columbia's man-made lake, for instance, might not be placated by efforts by the amphitheater's operator, I.M.P. Productions Inc. of Bethesda, to minimize noise, traffic and trash.

Merriweather, which has an asking price said to be about $6 million, is a small part of General Growth's portfolio. But the concert venue has become a major symbol of the company's dealings in Howard, where Rouse was based for nearly 40 years and where its founder was a familiar figure to business leaders, politicians and residents.

General Growth has made few overtures to local leaders. Instead, it has waged a legal battle against the county over the rejection of a proposal to build housing on 51 acres next to the venue. The company also is pressing the planning board to allow commercial development on the site, should its request for housing fail.

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