Merriweather Post Pavilion, which has been steadily losing business to larger concert venues in the region, could be turned into a year-round center for the performing arts, under a proposal Howard County officials are considering.

County Executive James N. Robey (D) announced yesterday that his office is studying whether to buy Merriweather Post from Rouse Co. to prevent Columbia's cultural hub from ending up in someone else's hands.

Rouse Co. officials said they would like Howard County to buy the concert pavilion and enclose it, creating an all-weather facility dedicated more to cultural events than to big-name bands on summer tours.

If the county decides against the purchase, several other buyers have an expressed interest in the property, said Dennis Miller, vice president and general manager of Rouse Co., the firm that developed Columbia.

"We want it to remain something dedicated to the arts, and the thought is Howard County would be the perfect stewards for maintaining that," Miller said. "An enclosed venue is more appropriate with the more sophisticated market we have in Howard County."

Howard County officials say they are intrigued by the idea and will hire a consultant and empanel a task force to study the proposal. They also will consider buying the pavilion and leaving it as is. County officials expect to make a decision by the end of the year.

"It is part of Howard County's cultural tradition so it is really important to preserve that, if possible, as a significant resource for the county," said James M. Irvin, director of the Howard County Department of Public Works.

Merriweather was heralded as one of the finest outdoor amphitheaters in the county when Rouse Co. opened it in 1967. On its opening night, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey went to hear the National Symphony. For the next three decades, the 15,000-seat facility attracted concertgoers from the Washington-Baltimore region and showcased the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys and Britney Spears.

But the pavilion, which once hosted 50 events a summer, scheduled only 19 concerts last year. Miller blames increased competition from Northern Virginia's 25,000-seat Nissan Pavilion for Merriweather's dwindling attendance. "What happens in the entertainment world when an entertainer comes to a metropolitan area, they look for the largest possible venue," Miller said.

Miller said Howard County's relatively affluent population -- with the highest average household income in the state -- also strengthens the case for a year-round arts center. Rouse Co. has considered developing around the pavilion recently.

Several county leaders, including Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) and County Council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), said they would like the county to buy the site and put a retractable roof on it.

"I have serious, serious doubts about its viability as strictly an enclosed venue," Ulman said. "You need those big shows to able to generate the kind of revenue you need to keep it going."

But Donna Rice, a member of the Columbia Council who has lived in the community for 33 years, said Merriweather should shift its focus to try to draw Broadway plays and symphony performances to Howard County.

"We have people who really enjoy the arts here, but they are also well traveled people so they go other places because we do not have places to go here," Rice said.

Irvin said the county will not purchase Merriweather if it looks as if it would be a money-loser. Even so, council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County) criticized Robey for considering the purchase, noting that the county had to raise taxes last year to balance the budget and put off several school construction projects this year.