By the last day of November, it turned out that the Howard County Council’s passing $90 million of tax increment financing (TIF) legislation wasn’t the only big news to hit the street on Little Patuxent Parkway. In that case, it concerned the final act of confirmation of news that was a good dozen years in the making.
That second wave occurred when the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC), the community developer for Downtown Columbia, officially transferred ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion (MPP) to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (DCACC). The news was applauded by a host of local officials, some of whom had been involved (in one way or another) since this chapter of the Merriweather saga began more than 10 years ago. It began with a community outcry to save the 49-year-old music venue, which was at a crossroads due to its deteriorating condition — and the desire of some members of the local real estate community to develop the land along with that of the Crescent, the nickname of the 68-acre-area behind the pavilion that has mainly been used for parking since its inception.
The deal became official when HHC Vice President Greg Fitchitt presented a ceremonial key to DCACC Executive Director Ian Kennedy, who was part of the group that founded Save Merriweather a decade or so ago.
“This is a historic day in Downtown Columbia. The future of Merriweather Post Pavilion is now assured. As we move forward with the Downtown Columbia plan, Merriweather Post Pavilion is integral to creating a vibrant, exciting Downtown Columbia,” said Fitchitt.
With that acknowledgement, what is now known as the Merriweather District is slated to become the center of culture and commerce in Columbia that its developer and founder. Jim Rouse, intended for it to be when it was founded nearly 50 years ago.
Howard County Councilmember Mary Kay Sigaty, a long-time booster of the arts who was among the speakers at the ceremony, had been working toward the result for many years.
“Today is the day,” Sigaty said, “that opens the doors to imagination.”
The Earlier News
The news about Merriweather became official about a month after Sigaty and her colleagues on the county council approved the TIF for public infrastructure improvements in the Merriweather District. The move is part of the 30-year blueprint for the revitalization and redevelopment of Downtown Columbia, which will be developed by HHC.
The Merriweather District is part of the plan approved by the county council in 2010 to bring a vibrant, walkable center to Columbia. Phase 1 will include 1 million square feet of commercial office space, 750 residential apartment units and 250,000 square feet of street retail. As community developer, HHC will invest $2.2 billion in the redevelopment district created by the legislation.
“I think the TIF is our local government’s commitment to making the Downtown Columbia Plan work,” said Sigaty. “What this TIF does in relation to Merriweather is build a public parking garage on the empty fields around Merriweather for the construction that is in the plan. It really helps that whole area move forward.”
How that impacts the pavilion, she said, is that the legislation will spur its “immediate environment to change into a much more urban [area] that will give Merriweather more opportunities. The change in ownership means that potentially new things will happen at Merriweather, and the area [inside and outside the gates] will become the green space for that [part of Columbia] due to [the presence of] Symphony Woods, and a resting place.”
Make It the Best
Sigaty’s comment about “new things” happening due to the new ownership is part of the mission of not only Kennedy, but of Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P. and Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. Hurwitz has also booked and promoted Merriweather for a dozen years and, with pavilion General Manager Jean Parker and Director of Operations Brad Canfield, has not only been central to the movement to preserve and renovate Merriweather, but has also invested a considerable amount of his own money into the pavilion while doing so.
“It’s going to be weird waking up and not knowing what the next issue [will be],” Hurwitz said, during his turn at the podium during the transfer ceremony. “If this is truly the end, this is a big deal.”
Hurwitz, however, acknowledged that many of the questions from the residential or business communities that came up during that dozen years were born of legitimate concerns.
“When there was another issue,” he said, “it arose from [the actions of] people who were really trying to do the right thing. Obviously, this all started with Ian and then [former County Executive] Ken Ulman,” who was also instrumental in the effort to save Merriweather, starting with his earlier days as the county councilman from District 4.
“But, in the end, it was John DeWolf on the side of Howard Hughes that really had the vision to make sure Merriweather remained standing, and in the right hands,” he said, adding that “[Howard County Councilmember for District 4] Mary Kay Sigaty “has also been our savior and warrior.”
Now, he can watch the continuing renovations and do what he set out to do in the first place: “Make Merriweather the best outdoor venue in the world,” Hurwitz said. “That’s really my goal.”
In the Woods
The other news that has been somewhat under the radar due to the recent goings on in Town Center is the completion of the Chrysalis, the stage that has risen by the Merriweather office and is the first project that will open at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods.
Michael McCall, president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust, has revealed that the ribbon cutting for the project will take place on the morning of Saturday, April 22.
McCall knows all about having to wait for approvals and funding, as he is looking for $2.5 million to start the second phase of what’s known as the Inner Arbor Plan, The Boardwalk, which will connect the Howard County Public Library on South Entrance Road to the Chrysalis, via a route that connects around the forested wetland in between.
“I’m very proud that we’ve gotten money from two county executives (installments of $3.5 million and $1.5 million from Ulman, then $1.4 million from successor Allan Kittleman),” he said, “and that the county council has also been behind directing funding toward our first project.”
The next chapter for Merriweather Park concerns acquiring funding for the Boardwalk, then more for Phase 3, the Butterfly, which will rise behind the Merriweather office and will face the Chrysalis. It will include a restaurant, a roof deck and a small indoor venue for live music; another part of the project will be a three-tiered deck that faces the Chrysalis.
“People can already see themselves enjoying a cold beverage and listening to some music, especially before a show at the Chrysalis or at Merriweather,” McCall said, “or just on a beautiful day.”
Boosting Merriweather Park comes next, but on that late November day, it was all about what’s going on inside the fence. That sounds good to Sigaty, who further remarked about what the pavilion means to the area from an arts standpoint.
“I keep going back to the opening up of Merriweather from just a concert venue to a venue for local residents, with [Merriweather Park at] Symphony Woods [also] becoming a key venue” in that mix, she said. “We in Howard County believe in the arts. Just look at all of the musical and theater groups we have, with many residents who play in various groups and combos. Then, we have the kids who are dancing and playing in rock bands or classical groups.
“When you frame kids’ artwork at space like Merriweather or Symphony Woods, they see it, and themselves, differently,” said Sigaty. And that becomes inspirational for them.
“You don’t know what kinds of doors that it can potentially open for them, but I can’t wait to find out,” she said. “The whole conversation changed today.”
Hurwitz is on board with that feeling, too. “It’s been a long, difficult road to get to this point, but we’re here now, finally,” he said. “The only agenda from here on out, for everyone, is for Merriweather to be the best outdoor venue in the world.
“The politics are over with,” he said, “now let’s make some great music.”