Birchmere Out In Talks About Silver Spring Music Venue

By Richard Harrington and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 26, 2007

Montgomery County has ended negotiations with the owners of the Alexandria-based Birchmere to open a second music hall in Silver Spring and is considering another operator for the site.

"Without cause or plausible explanation, the county has apparently chosen to breach its agreement," the Birchmere said in a statement yesterday.

Live Nation, the world's largest producer of live concerts, is considering Silver Spring for one of its new Fillmore-branded clubs, according to someone familiar with the negotiations. If the Live Nation deal goes through, the venue could be nearly three times as big as the Birchmere's proposed 700-seat hall. This could make Silver Spring, which is already well on its way to becoming an arts center, a destination for top-drawer live entertainment.

A Live Nation spokesman declined to comment yesterday on the possibility of coming to Silver Spring, as did county officials. The project is planned for a large parking lot and the historic J.C. Penney Co. storefront across Colesville Road from the AFI Silver Theater.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said negotiations with the Birchmere had dragged on too long. County officials also expressed concern about the music hall's economic impact after the Birchmere introduced changes that would have decreased the venue's projected size.

Pradeep Ganguly, Montgomery's economic development director, told the Birchmere in a letter last week that the county was ending negotiations and widening its search for an operator.

"We told them we wanted to put our further discussions on hold and look at some alternative operators for the Silver Spring site," said Montgomery County spokesman Patrick Lacefield. "We are looking for a larger economic impact and we weren't exactly where we wanted to be in negotiations with Birchmere," Lacefield added. "We love the Birchmere but we were just separated on a number of essential business issues."

Five years ago, during the administration of thenCounty Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), Montgomery County approached the Birchmere about opening another music hall in Silver Spring. (The nationally known Alexandria club, which seats 500, has hosted major names since 1966.) Last August, a public/private partnership involving the county, state and Lee Development was announced: Lee Development would donate about 9,000 square feet of land to the county (valued at $4 million) and the Birchmere would make a "significant investment," reportedly $1 million, to convert the site into a music venue. In addition, the county and state each allocated $4 million over the next two years to the project.

"Any assertion by the county or any other entity that the parties were unable to reach agreement on the essential business terms is patently and demonstrably false," the Birchmere said in a statement. "The Duncan administration's vision for the unique role of the Birchmere in the revitalization of Silver Spring appears to have been hijacked."

Should Live Nation become the new partner, capacity would likely be larger than for Birchmere's proposed venue. According to Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development, which will be developing the site, Hickok Cole Architects did a test fit for a 2,000-capacity venue "and it fits beautifully."

Expanded capacity would be a boon to restaurants in the emerging arts and entertainment district along the northern edge of downtown Silver Spring, Lee said. "With shows that start at 8 or 9 at night, where are all the people going to go to dinner? Across the street to restaurant row."

Live Nation's proposed new venue for Silver Spring is the Fillmore, a new brand of nightclubs (mostly renamed older facilities) that have been introduced in six cities to complement Live Nation's 11 House of Blues clubs.

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