Is the County Overfeeding Downtown Silver Spring?

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, October 4, 2007

W hen Montgomery County built a concert hall to compete with the Kennedy Center, the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore struck some residents as a symbol of an affluent suburb establishing itself as something more than an appendage to a big city. Others, appalled to see their tax dollars subsidizing symphony concerts, questioned whether the county should take on the role of music impresario.

To jump-start the reinvention of downtown Silver Spring, the county also went into the movie business, subsidizing the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. And now Montgomery is getting into rock and pop concerts, pumping millions into a deal to build a Live Nation music club in the long-vacant J.C. Penney building in Silver Spring.

The county isn't stopping there. County Executive Ike Leggett says he'd like to build a sports arena, most likely in Germantown, to host football, minor league basketball and hockey games, and all manner of concerts, graduations, and consumer and trade shows.

"We know there is a shortage of live entertainment in the county," Leggett tells me. "These are facilities that may not make a profit but provide an economic impetus. They help to bring more people" to developing centers such as downtown Silver Spring, generating tax revenue and giving people a place in which to gather.

It's a simple, and expensive, fact of modern life that big public venues tend to be supported by public dollars.

Naturally, libraries, recreation centers and parks are tax-supported; they're run by the government. But it's become increasingly routine for John Q. Public to help pay for privately operated facilities such as the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the proposed Birchmere concert hall in College Park or the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new Harman Center for the Arts in the District. Arts groups say the soaring costs of land and construction make it virtually impossible to build a modern facility without taxpayer money.

"People say, 'Wow, Live Nation is a big company, why can't they do this themselves?' " says Tim Firestine, chief administrative officer of Montgomery County, who negotiated the deal to bring the club to Silver Spring. "But without public subsidy, you wouldn't have Live Nation there. Most of the money from ticket sales goes to the act."

There's no question that Silver Spring is blooming. An outdoor jazz festival last month drew 25,000 visitors, and the area teems with people almost every evening. So why is it necessary to spend $4 million in county money to draw an additional 2,000 people on about 70 nights a year?

Firestine argues that the sight of an empty Penney building for two decades speaks for itself. The private sector just couldn't find a way to make that property profitable. The county concluded that Live Nation would create the critical mass of foot traffic needed to encourage more restaurants and small businesses to set up shop in downtown.

"How many failed attempts were there to redevelop downtown Silver Spring?" Firestine asks, citing "the big mall projects, the American Dream," a developer's grandiose plan for a retail and entertainment complex.

If you want a bottom-line payoff for your government investments, the Live Nation club at least promises to produce tax revenues. But the county justifies its spending on Strathmore and a sports arena in a different way: "Strathmore has generated a great deal of buzz for the county," Leggett says.

As Neale Perl, president of the Washington Performing Arts Society, puts it, "It's part of a cultural renaissance in which people are realizing that their old attitudes about 'oh, it's the suburbs, it can't be world-class' are so outdated. They go to Strathmore, and it's just jaw-dropping."

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