For Ian Kennedy, 2023 has been one happenin’ trek around the sun. Not only is Merriweather Post Pavilion presenting more shows than it has in many a year, the grassroots movement he and his friend Justin Carlson founded to prevent the venue from possible demolition, Save Merriweather, has turned 20.
On the heels of four straight sellout shows at Merriweather ― featuring The Dave Matthews Band, The Cure, Shania Twain and Luke Bryan ― Kennedy, who grew a beard for years until the Downtown Columbia Arts & Culture Commission took ownership of the facility, took time to reflect upon the recently rebranded nonprofit’s past and his vision as he prepared for a late August public celebration.
Why did the name of your organization change from the DCACC to the Merriweather Arts and Culture Center?
Because we feel the new name better defines the organization and our ownership of the Pavilion. There are more names with “Merriweather” Downtown these days ― like the District, the Park and the Lakehouse Hotel ― and we want people to know that we promote arts and culture. In 2013, I became a founding board member and in 2016 became executive director, and this felt like a natural evolution.
How did Save Merriweather work with the then General Growth Properties (now Howard Hughes Corp.); Merriweather’s promoter, I.M.P.; Howard County, etc., to save the venue?
The grassroots movement started in 2003 and slowly grew to the point where all involved saw the synergies the Pavilion, as the centerpiece, would provide to the development of a vibrant Downtown Columbia. It just needed some physical enhancements and the right operator.
What was planned by GGP for the land that the pavilion occupies?
GGP’s plans for the 10 acres were unclear. The bigger push was to build on the parking lots, which were just gravel and grass. At the same time, however, GGP argued that Merriweather was no longer viable due to the evolving concert market and the facility’s condition.
But the main problem came down to the pavilion being managed by a company that had a financial interest in steering shows to what is now Jiffy Lube Live. So a number of local businesspeople and politicians, notably Ken Ulman and Guy Guzzone, worked to persuade GGP to consider other options for operators because they remembered Merriweather’s glory days.
Will we see more concerts with established artists working with the locals, such as the recent Guster show with the Howard County Youth Orchestra?
Yes, that is what we, as a nonprofit, are focused on — creating unique and inclusive experiences, and performances, for our community. As someone who played in front of a crowd at Merriweather during my high school graduation, I wanted to create similar opportunities for more students.
But know that finding an artist that was willing to play with a high school orchestra wasn’t easy, mainly because they don’t know what they’re getting. So that show was a proof of concept for us. And it was successful beyond our expectations.
What is your operating budget and where does your money come from?
Our budget ranges between $1,000,000 and $1,500,000. We’re a nonprofit, so we’re eligible for grants from the state and county. We also garner donations, sponsorships and rent from I.M.P., and occasionally ticket sales, as was the case with the Guster show.
How does your organization work within the business community?
We work with HHC to produce a series of seven concerts at Color Burst Park. We also worked with Merriweather Lakehouse hotel to present a show with Guster the night before the Pavilion show and with local restaurants for events, catering, handling traffic issues, etc.
How often does the MACC use the Chrysalis?
That’s run by the Inner Arbor Trust, though we do use it on occasion.
How has the new parking plan for MPP been working?
Pretty well. You don’t have to pay, but concertgoers do need to reserve a space online in a designated garage or area. Parking for big events is always going to be a work in progress, especially as Downtown’s development continues.
How many events are held at the Pavilion each year, including the concerts?
This year, there will be about 40 concerts, with 15-20 of the other aforementioned events, including high school graduations.
How are you working to find more alternate uses for Merriweather aside from concerts and high school graduations?
Of late, we’ve done three movie nights and some teen nights, and we often help community partners host events and staff retreats. Outside of the property, we recently brought in a duo called The Reminders to do workshops at seven county middle schools. We strive to bring the Pavilion to people who might not visit for a concert.
Is there a possibility that Merriweather will be used during the winter, aside from Symphony of Lights?
That’s something I’ve given much thought to, especially on 60-degree days in January. But the Pavilion was not built to be a year-round venue, so it gets winterized; the water and the electricity are shut off. It takes a couple of months to get the facility back up and running.
Has anyone ever approached you about naming rights for the Pavilion?
We’ll never say never, but I don’t know that we would really consider doing that because Merriweather is one of the iconic names in the industry.
What would it surprise people to know about your efforts with Save Merriweather?
I wonder what would have happened if Justin and I weren’t hanging out on his deck on a summer day in 2003. The Rouse Co. was used to getting what it wanted, but they eventually saw what we saw ― that an improved Merriweather was the centerpiece of a developed Downtown would work for all concerned. And all concerned were right.
Where would you like to see your organization in five years?
Doing multiple signature events, maybe with the Howard County Public School System or other regional and cultural intuitions, so we can grow our community programming, especially to people who are not typical concertgoers.
Also, we need a more robust staffing structure. The MACC has three employees, including one part-timer, so we’re burning the candle at both ends.