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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.

Lacefield said Montgomery County would still contribute funds to develop the site. A representative for David W. Edgerley, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, said the state "will continue to work with the county to make this project work."

Alan Bowser, a local civic activist who sits on the county's Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, questioned yesterday whether residents would want a larger and potentially noisier venue downtown, where residents thwarted a proposal in the early 1990s to build the "American Dream" mall, complete with wave pool and skating rink.

"We though the Birchmere was an appropriate small hall venue that would fit into downtown Silver Spring," Bowser said. "My guess is that neighbors would be less enamored of and not as supportive of a larger performance venue. There is already concern about parking, traffic and noise."

Leggett, who took office last December, had pledged his support for the Birchmere during his campaign. He said the county was committed to finding someone who could help revitalize that section of Silver Spring and bring additional foot traffic to an area in which merchants have complained that the revival has passed them by.

"I am committed to making certain that area of Silver Spring is part of the revitalization," he said. "We are looking at other options. I hope that in the final analysis something will come out that is beneficial for the county."

When the Birchmere proposal was still active, plans were to break ground in late 2008, with the opening targeted for 2009. Lacefield said yesterday he hoped to have matters resolved "in next couple of months . . . Whatever happens is going to contribute to the music scene considerably."

Lee Development is moving ahead with plans for a mixed-use complex next to the proposed music venue.

"We have a roughly $110 million real estate project of which this is a small piece, and we can't sit around forever," Lee said. He added that county officials "want to see a 'Broadway effect' on Colesville Road across from the AFI Silver Theatre and Round House Theatre to complement what's been done on that side of the road. We think it's a great complement no matter who the operator is."

Meanwhile, the Birchmere said in its statement that it "will now resume actively seeking expansion opportunities in the D.C. marketplace."

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