If Howard County decides to buy Merriweather Post Pavilion from Rouse Co. and keep it as an open-air concert venue, it must resolve where patrons will park.

A proposed Rouse Co. commercial development on 51 acres next to Merriweather would absorb the pavilion's nearly 5,000 parking spaces. Other space unofficially used for years by Merriweather patrons also will begin to disappear as development continues across the street near the Mall in Columbia.

A community panel is examining a Rouse Co. proposal to sell Merriweather Post for about $6 million to the county. Rouse, which is preparing to finalize the company's sale to General Growth Properties Inc., is insisting that any buyer transform Merriweather into a much smaller, enclosed hall with almost no on-site parking.

Brad Canfield, Merriweather's longtime director of operations and production, told the panel last week that parking shortages could be remedied easily, even if Merriweather remains an outdoor amphitheater.

Merriweather needs about 7,100 parking spaces four times a year when concerts are sold out, with roughly19,400 patrons. A typical concert, however, draws an audience of about 8,000 and requires much less parking, he said.

Office-building parking garages are nearby, Canfield told the panel. Even after planned housing and other developments are finished in downtown Columbia, there would still be about 14,000 parking spaces, including the area around the Mall that is potentially available for concert patrons.

Canfield said a similar situation exists near Houston at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in the Woodlands, a planned community that Rouse Co. helped develop. There are about 900 on-site parking spots for the theater, which can accommodate about 16,000 patrons, Canfield said. Most of the parking has been provided through arrangements with private property owners, including the shopping mall owned by General Growth.

In recent weeks, the community panel, headed by Randall M. Griffin, head of Corporate Office Properties, has appeared to be coalescing around the notion that Merriweather must stay a large, outdoor concert hall to remain financially viable.

Although that idea runs counter to Rouse's offer, Griffin has said repeatedly the county might negotiate a different deal.

"I think it would be a mistake to blindly accept Rouse's proposal without thinking of the long-range needs of the county," he said.

The panel's meeting Oct. 20 -- its third since August -- included about two hours of testimonials to Merriweather and often emotional pleas for the county to save it.

Lisa Ossie, a longtime Columbia resident, decried Rouse's plans to take away the parking spaces at Merriweather, saying that "would be a virtual death sentence for the amphitheater."

"Where do they propose people park for an enclosed Merriweather theater? Could they be suggesting the destruction of Symphony Woods, to afford more parking?" she asked referring to the wooded land immediately surrounding Merriweather. "If they think the community is irate now, wait until the tree-huggers of Columbia hop on that train. "

She also said the community has enclosed theaters, including the James Rouse Theater, about 11/2 miles from Merriweather. A performing arts center is being constructed at nearby Howard Community College.

Justin Carlson, a founder of Save Merriweather, a community group that has been campaigning to keep the amphitheater as an outdoor venue, called the pavilion a community "treasure."

"Columbia is fast becoming just another town filled with chain restaurants, business parks and strip shopping malls . . . but shouldn't Columbia and Howard County strive to be more than just that?

"Having more to offer, being a little bit different and better than the norm," he said, "is something worth fighting for."

No one spoke in favor of closing Merriweather, and almost all the speakers said it should remain an open-air venue. One Columbia resident, Donna L. Rice, a former member of the Columbia Council and a member of the Maryland State Arts Council, said she prefers a smaller, enclosed venue. Operating year-round would allow for more diverse performances, Rice said.

The panel also has discussed creating a year-round "performing arts village," which might include children's theater and indoor performance and teaching spaces.