Wish List For Revenue Panel Grows

By Susan DeFord and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 3, 2005

A wish list of multimillion-dollar projects already has emerged for the new Howard County Revenue Authority, which is expected to be approved soon by the Maryland General Assembly.

The county's 11-member legislative delegation last week endorsed a bill to create the authority, paving the way for passage by the assembly in the coming weeks. County Executive James N. Robey (D) said he hopes the authority is up and running within a year.

Howard would join major Maryland counties such as Baltimore and Montgomery, where similar authorities have issued bonds to build or renovate revenue-generating facilities including golf courses, parking garages, a swimming pool and an airpark. Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard), a reluctant supporter of the authority, has insisted that it not operate golf courses because he felt that would compete with private business.

One possible project for the authority is the purchase and renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, which owner General Growth Properties is trying to sell. General Growth has not publicly disclosed its asking price, but it is said to be $6 million.

A community panel studying the future of Merriweather Post has been enthusiastic about trying to keep it intact as an open-air venue that can accommodate as many as 19,000 concert-goers. Panel members have called it a regional "gem," with steady attendance and revenue that generates millions of dollars in related spending each year.

The group, headed by Randall M. Griffin, president and chief executive of Corporate Office Properties, said last week that it would soon recommend that the county either buy the 10-acre site and amphitheater, or consider a private-public partnership with an operator receiving an equity stake in the amphitheater.

Currently, IMP Productions Inc., based in Bethesda, is running Merriweather, and is interested in purchasing the pavilion or obtaining a long-term contract with the county.

Duncan Webb, an arts consultant who worked with Ziger/Snead of Baltimore to evaluate Merriweather, said the facility could use almost $20 million in improvements, a figure that's nearly $5 million higher than an earlier estimate. Webb suggested raising the ceiling height of the stage about 15 to 20 feet, a $2 million project that might allow Merriweather to attract additional blockbuster acts and sellout crowds.

Another project for the revenue authority is a parking garage in downtown Ellicott City. Robey told the legislative delegation last week that he recently drove around downtown for 30 minutes on a Saturday night searching for a parking space, then ended up parking illegally.

"It definitely is needed," he said.

Del. Gail H. Bates (R-Howard) believes she has a better alternative for financing the parking garage, which has been discussed by local officials since the 1970s. Working with the nonprofit Ellicott City Business Association Inc., she has drafted a bill that seeks up to $500,000 in state bonds, to be matched by the association, to build the garage. The bill was approved last week by the delegation and next goes to a House committee.

But Herman Charity, Robey's executive assistant, said the county's top two priorities for state bond bills this year were the renovation of the historic Blandair manor house in Columbia and a North Laurel community center.

Jared Spahn, a member of the board of directors for the business association, said a parking garage for the historic community should be high on the county's agenda.

"Ellicott City is the oldest city in Howard County," he said. "It would be disappointing for it once again to be last on the list of priorities."

Meanwhile, Howard Community College officials also want a parking garage. If state and county funding is provided as expected, the college will start construction this summer on a $28 million student services building.

That new building, the college's third in four years, will result in the loss of 144 parking spaces, said Lynn C. Coleman, the college's vice president of administration and finance. With parking already tight on campus, Coleman said, that "means we're in desperate straits."

The college, she said, would be willing to levy a $25 semester parking fee per student to pay off construction of a 300-space garage, which it estimates will cost $4.4 million. Administrators would like to have the garage built by next year.

"We're champing at the bit for this," Coleman said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company