Friday, May 23, 2014

Why Merriweather Matters

If you were paying any attention to local news this week, you likely heard about a "deal being struck" on the renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion.  It is admittedly quite complicated, but as a $10 million budget item and a $19 million project overall, probably something you will want to pay attention to.  I am going to try to explain it, but without the source documents I will mostly be relying on the fantastic reporting of Luke Lavoie and Amanda Yeager, who both covered budget negotiations.

There are three parties to this agreement: Howard County, Howard Hughes, and the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (DCACC - Are we going to call this D-sac?  Are people already doing that?  It sounds crass).  Under the 2015 budget, Howard County will grant $10 million to DCACC.  $500,000 of that will be put towards "cultural programming in the community" with the other $9.5 million intended to be distributed as a loan to Howard Hughes for the renovation of Merriweather.

Before Howard Hughes receives any of that money, they are required to invest their own $9.5 million into renovations that they expect to be completed over the next 2 years; namely, raising the roof, updating seating, and improving the bathrooms and concessions.  If Howard Hughes does not spend their portion, the $9.5 million granted to the DCACC is reverted back to the County.

While not covered in the reporting, the plan is for DCACC to ultimately receive Merriweather from Howard Hughes and, as landlord, receive lease-payments from the operator.  These funds will then be available as a source for downtown arts projects, including Inner Arbor.

It is also important to note that the premise for this idea, in terms of putting $10 million in a trust, was put forward by Council-member Greg Fox.  This was a bipartisan effort from start to finish.

I think we can expect questions regarding why $10 million in taxpayer dollars are being invested in what, heretofore, has been a private enterprise.  The answer is simple - Merriweather is a cultural pillar.  I don't think this place ever received the respect it deserved.  There was some community pride in Save Merriweather, but this never developed into "Invest $10 Million in Merriweather".  Not only would that be a clunky title, but it also was never clear what exactly needed saving (at least in its second incarnation) despite diligent efforts at explanation by folks like Ian Kennedy.  People just knew that this was an important place.

But why is it important?  A good starting point is to imagine Columbia without Merriweather.  For me, that is like imagining the face of a close friend without their nose.  For others, Merriweather represents Columbia's soul.  The debate may never end on whether Columbia is "plastic" or inauthentic, but for as long as there has been a counter-argument it has included the word "Merriweather".  It is the axle upon which Columbia's culture spins.

In a much more practical sense, this deal needed to get done because Merriweather will always be an emotional hang-up for the development of Columbia.  As goes Merriweather, so does Columbia.  If you never step foot inside Merriweather or Symphony Woods again (which would be a true shame), this deal should still matter to you.  It means we are moving forward.

This is the right deal for Howard County and shows courageous leadership by our County Council and Executive.  You can't touch on this subject without offering heart-felt thanks to Ian Kennedy for his countless (unpaid) hours spent in meetings, on the phone, writing e-mails, starting Facebook groups, writing Facebook-posts-that-really-should-be-blog-posts, and most importantly - reminding us why Merriweather matters.  Why it is more than a place, in the woods, where concerts are held.  I love living in this County because of neighbors like Ian who pick up their shovel and get to work.

I would also like to thank Brad Canfield, Greg Fitchitt, and John DeWolf.  It may be popular to beat up on private enterprise or the "big developer", but I think this deal shows a significant amount of collaboration and cooperation, along with hope for future consensus.

Have a great Friday doing what you love and a great, reflective, appreciative, and appropriately solemn Memorial Day.