Merriweather District becoming hub for culture and commerce as the county springs forward

Over 250 business leaders gathered in the Merriweather District recently to discuss the future of Howard County, and the experts predict Downtown Columbia is prepared to be the center of culture and commerce for the region.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball kicked off the Bisnow-organized event by enumerating the many accolades that Columbia and Howard County have received from national organizations and publications.

The community has been called the “best city to live in America” and cited for having the highest percent of workers with degrees, for being the “safest city” in the country and one of the healthiest, he said. In addition, Ball noted, Howard County has a top ranked school system and is “business friendly.”

The meeting, held in the Two Merriweather office building, featured panels focused on cybersecurity and the development boom, the importance of public and private partnerships, and culture’s role in the future of Downtown Columbia.

Moderated by Gina Abate of Edwards Performance Solutions, the cybersecurity panel included David Fields of CBRE, Ron Gula of Gula Tech Adventures, Anuja Sonalker of STEER Tech, and Stephen Riddick of Tenable.

Charged with identifying factors needed to create the “Silicon Valley of the East,” Gula called for “10 more buildings” like the one under construction for Tenable, the cybersecurity giant he founded that is relocating to the Merriweather District.

It’s not just more cybersecurity firms that are needed, he noted. A flourishing economic ecosystem needs to include bankers, lawyers, marketing and all other services, as well.
“Techies need everyone else,” Sonalker added.

Moderated by Gina Abate of Edwards Performance Solutions, the cybersecurity panel included (from left) Stephen Riddick of Tenable, Anuja Sonalker of STEER Tech, Ron Gula of Gula Tech Adventures and David Fields of CBRE.

To attract these businesses, the panelists agreed, it is necessary to establish an “amenity-rich”  environment, both inside and outside the office buildings where people work. “People want to feel they belong here,” Sonalker said of the workforce, adding, “That doesn’t begin and end with the job. They want 360 degree living.” 

Riddick agreed, pointing out that within its headquarters, Tenable will include a “world class” rooftop gathering space and a gymnasium, amenities designed to appeal to younger workers. Deciding to build in Downtown Columbia was a “brilliant decision” by Gula, he said, praising the live-work-play revitalization as a major draw for the company and its workforce.

Many factors go into decisions of locating a business, Fields said, noting that Pearson, the major tenant in the Two Merriweather office building, had developed a workplace strategy to provide a more flexible custom-built environment to fuel workplace retention. Pearson also wanted access to the Baltimore and Washington employee and talent base, while other clients locating in Downtown Columbia liked the retail customer market or proximity to the airport.

As a signal to prospective tenants, Riddick advised positioning Howard County as the home of the broad-based tech industry seeking an environment that encourages innovation.

The panel on public private partnerships primarily focused on the funding and construction of the new Howard County Courthouse, using it as an example of how political risk is assessed for such a costly project.

Discussing the culture of Downtown Columbia were Tom Meyer of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, Darin Atwater of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, Nina Basu of Inner Arbor Trust, Vanessa Rodriguez of The Howard Hughes Corporation, and Derek Wood of FOX Architects. Greg Fitchitt, President for Columbia, The Howard Hughes Corporation, was the moderator.

Fitchitt noted that developers look for “anchors” for a project. In the redevelopment of the mixed use 5 million square foot Merriweather District, he said, “culture is the anchor”: the iconic Merriweather Post Pavilion sits in its center.

Meyer has a four-decade history with Clyde’s of Columbia, and he came to feel the city didn’t have enough music venues, so he opened the Soundry a year ago along the Columbia Lakefront. It is a “labor of love,” he said, and he is hoping the cumulative effect of redevelopment and concentration on arts and culture “floats all boats.”

A “recovered corporate attorney,” Basu enthused about her two years working to program and promote Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and its architecturally striking Chrysalis amphitheatre adjacent to the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Over 65,000 people have been drawn to the venue in the past year through a diverse schedule of entertainment for all ages.

Composer, conductor, musician Atwater, newly named Artistic Director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, said “Rousian values of inclusivity and expanding what’s possible” are mirrored in the DCACC and its adoption of the Soulful Symphony he founded and conducts. “Magic and miracles” spring from the arts, he said.
The Soulful Symphony will engage with its audience differently than is typical of symphonies and will better reflect the diversity of the residential and business community where it resides, Atwater added.

Rodriguez, vice president of marketing for Columbia, The Howard Hughes Corporation, said her challenge is to expand arts and culture in Downtown Columbia and have those efforts reach across the region to draw tenants, residents and visitors.

Most promising to date has been the success of the company’s OPUS Merriweather, an ambitious festival merging groundbreaking contemporary art with world-class musical performances, transforming the Merriweather Post Pavilion and the surrounding Symphony Woods into an open-air theatre. The next OPUS Merriweather is anticipated in 2020, when the Merriweather District has its official grand opening.

Rodriguez noted that The Howard Hughes Corporation has established the Merriweather District Artist-in-Residence program now in its second year, and will soon be announcing its public art program’s first major installation, a 35-foot tall kinetic sculpture.

The company also serves as a partner, collaborator and funder for several 2019 summer projects and initiatives, including Books in Bloom, the Columbia Festival of the Arts, and Soulful Symphony’s residency at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

For a current schedule of activities in Downtown Columbia, visit