Although the long-term future of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia remains unclear, the site's owners have renewed a contract with a local promoter to manage Maryland's biggest outdoor concert venue through the 2005 season.
"Everything is exactly the same, except of course that we're going to try to make it better," says Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of the promoter, I.M.P. He and partner Rich Heineke also operate Washington's 9:30 club.
According to Dennis Miller, vice president and general manager of Columbia for the Rouse Co., which owns the pavilion, "there will be concerts at the site in 2005."
However, Rouse is continuing with previously announced plans to commercially develop the 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped property that surrounds the nine-acre pavilion site and includes the venue's 4,500-car parking area.
The Howard County Planning Board is meeting tonight in Ellicott City and might vote on the Rouse proposal to develop the land for retail and office buildings.
Further clouding the picture, Rouse has put Merriweather itself up for sale, giving Howard County first rights to buy it for a reported $6 million. And Rouse is insisting that any buyer transform Merriweather into a much smaller, enclosed performing arts center.
"Currently the county has the exclusive rights to determine if they want to buy the venue as an enclosed performing arts center," says Miller. "We believe it would be appropriate for our community to have a venue that could be utilized year-round and that would bring an economic boost to Howard County as well as [Columbia's] Town Center throughout the year."
The offer to the county lasts until the end of the year.
In June, Howard County Executive James Robey appointed a 15-member citizens advisory group of business and arts leaders to study whether the county should purchase the pavilion and, if so, whether it should be open or enclosed. The group, which must also consider the long-range needs of the county, is expected to make recommendations by the end of the year.
"While this debate is going on, there's no reason to shut the pavilion down," says Hurwitz, adding that operations last summer were "profitable. Everyone wants to do what's right for the property and [the contract with I.M.P.] just gives them a little more breathing room. There are no plans for either the facility or the parking lot that would affect next year's season."
I.M.P. took over operations at Merriweather this year from Clear Channel Entertainment, which owns the larger Nissan Pavilion near Manassas. Merriweather seats 5,000 under its roof and 10,000 on its sloping lawn; Nissan seats 10,000 under its roof, with 15,000 lawn seats.
Rouse officials had maintained that Merriweather, built in 1967 as one of the planned community's original amenities, was not profitable because it no longer hosted as many concerts as it once did. In 2003, there were 19 concerts, down from as many as 40 in the pavilion's most successful years. According to Hurwitz, in its first summer under I.M.P.'s control there were 26 shows, with attendance surpassing 200,000.
Miller has said he envisions a smaller facility that would host plays, dance performances and musical acts year-round. An enclosed facility would likely have fewer seats than the current 5,000. According to Hurwitz, such a venue would lose money because it wouldn't attract the larger acts that pay the bills.
Another major problem: There would be almost no on-site parking if the sale and development of the adjacent land is approved. However, at an Oct. 20 meeting of the citizens panel, Brad Canfield, Merriweather's director of operations and production, suggested there would be sufficient parking in nearby office building garages and at the Mall in Columbia.
If Rouse's proposal is approved at tonight's planning board meeting, the company would then have to submit a more detailed plan for the site, and final approval of the project could take as long as a year, according to Harold Bernadzikowski, a planning supervisor in the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.
Bernadzikowski notes that the property around the pavilion is the last significant parcel available for development in Columbia and that it has been zoned commercial since Columbia was built in the 1960s. Regardless of how much money the pavilion makes, the land undoubtedly would be worth more if it was developed commercially.
Though Rouse is moving ahead with plans to sell Merriweather and develop the adjacent land, by the time a decision is made, it won't own the Columbia property, or the 150 other properties it owns in 22 states. On Tuesday, Rouse shareholders are scheduled to vote on the company's sale to Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., the country's second-largest shopping center owner, developer and manager of regional shopping malls. The sale could be finalized by Nov. 12.
It is not clear what General Growth Properties intends to do in Columbia. Calls to corporate headquarters in Chicago were not returned. It currently manages no residential communities or performing arts facilities.