Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) initially announced plans for an outpost of the Birchmere. It was then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan who initiated those plans. Leggett later tried unsuccessfully to move the proposal forward. This version has been corrected.
On the opening night at the Fillmore Silver Spring, the line to see inaugural act Mary J. Blige stretched so long it ran down Colesville Road to Fenton Street and turned the corner onto Cameron Street. Some fans waited well over an hour for the R&B legend’s 75-minute show to begin.
But two years after Blige took the stage that first night, the wait continues for the Fillmore’s stakeholders to deliver on some of the commitments they made to win the right to operate the publicly financed facility.
Montgomery County and Live Nation, the $5.8 billion live entertainment giant, have held just one of a required 72 free or discounted community events at the venue to date, and have yet to agree on terms for the staging of a charitable auction that is supposed to take place annually.
Other commitments have been kept. County officials are enjoying about $1,000 a month worth of free tickets to Fillmore shows through a lease provision that provides the county with six tickets to every event, according to county records. In all, officials received more than $20,000 worth of waived ticket prices and fees through April of this year, allowing them entry to shows from performers including John Legend, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Anthrax, Blondie and Young Jeezy.
Live Nation says it has lived up to the terms of the deal, and that it is the county’s responsibility to coordinate community events. In the meantime, the entertainment company is happy with the results. It has hosted more than 300 events and 250,000 guests at the venue since its opening.
The Fillmore ranks in the top 5 percent of all Live Nation venues nationwide, including its 13 House of Blues venues, according to Jim Yeager, a public relations consultant for House of Blues Entertainment, the Live Nation unit that operates the Fillmore.
Yeager said that with a 2,000-person capacity the Fillmore is large enough to attract performers such as Imagine Dragons, Garbage, Trey Anastasio and Widespread Panic. “We’re extremely happy with attendance, show quality and buzz. We’ve had an extraordinary reception,” Yeager said. “It’s continuing to grow. It’s one of our premier venues in our portfolio around the country.”
Montgomery County officials also said they believe the deal has been a good one so far, both as an economic development engine and a community facility.
“The county is very pleased with the relationship and asset that has been established through the Fillmore presence in Silver Spring,” said Ramona Bell-Pearson, assistant chief administrative officer for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), in an e-mail.
Others are less than enthusiastic about the returns, particularly since state and county taxpayers paid more than $11 million for the facility.
“One of the main reasons that people ended up supporting the Fillmore project is the promise of public usage, and now it seems like the public has been priced out of that usage,” said Evan Glass, who chairs the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board. “There are many people in the community who think this has been a bait-and-switch proposal.”
A major commercial theater was not the original vision for Silver Spring when county and state officials decided that the suburb needed an entertainment anchor for the site of a former J.C. Penney store on Colesville Road that closed in 1989.
Then-county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) initially announced plans to open a 700-seat outpost of the Birchmere, Alexandria’s independent and locally owned dinner theater-style music club. The Maryland state house passed legislation setting aside money for a “Birchmere Music Hall.”
But in 2007, Leggett entered into talks with Live Nation, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., and announced that he had ended talks with the Birchmere owners, saying they were “unable to come to agreement on critical business issues.”
Live Nation, the publicly traded owner of Ticketmaster and the House of Blues chain of concert halls, proposed a much different concept: a 2,000-person club that could draw larger, more commercial acts through multi-venue deals. They labeled it Fillmore, the name of a San Francisco club that the company has also affixed to venues it operates in Charlotte, Denver, Detroit and Miami.
Leggett inked an agreement without seeking competitive bids, and it drew a lawsuit from I.M.P., the Bethesda-based owner of the 9:30 Club in Northwest D.C., which was dismissed for lack of standing.
The state and county pledged a total of $8 million for the project, but after Leggett agreed to foot the bill for cost overruns, taxpayers ultimately put up $11.2 million for the facility. At the groundbreaking, Leggett said the project was “an investment well worth making.”
Under the lease agreement, Live Nation pays the county $90,000 annually for the first five years. Among other commitments, the community is “guaranteed a minimum of 36 free and heavily subsidized county and community uses of the facility each year.”
To date, only one of those 72 events has been held, a Rock-in-Schools Concert put on by the county’s public school system and department of recreation in May of 2012.
Other groups say they either cannot afford the fees, couldn’t complete the needed county paperwork in time or had their application rejected by the county.
For instance, Gandhi Brigade, a Silver Spring youth group, said it found the requirements too onerous. A local Girl Scouts troop was given approval to use the space, but backed out after it was unable to raise enough money to host the event. Even Rock-in Schools opted against holding the event there the following year.
Dina Gordon, executive director of the local chapter of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, said she toured the Fillmore in the spring to prepare for a November dinner and fundraiser. “It was available on the dates we were interested in. It’s a beautiful venue, we love it. We thought it would be interesting to have something in downtown Silver Spring,” she said.
First, Gordon said, she was told the cost would be $9,000, an “astronomical” number for an event with a $12,000 budget. She was then told she needed to apply through the county.
“We applied and we didn’t hear back forever and forever, and even with the nonprofit rate [it was too expensive]. We’re just looking to raise around $50,000 on a budget of $12,000. And we got denied anyway,” she said.
The Rockville-based foundation, a member of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, ultimately decided to hold its event in Arlington at the privately-owned Clarendon Ballroom, for $500.
Mike Diegel, a Silver Spring resident who frequents the Fillmore and chairs an advisory committee on the Silver Spring Arts and Entertainment District, acknowledged that the county had not done a good job showcasing the venue’s availability to community groups. “It’s not terribly visible on the Web site so that is something that hopefully could be improved,” he said.
Yeager said that the Fillmore has hosted 10 other charitable events since opening, which he said was “well above the industry norm,” and that it was the county’s responsibility to coordinate those required by the lease. “The selection and booking of these events is coordinated by the county. We remain committed to this process,” he said.
The county and Live Nation have also not come to terms on how to hold an annual charitable auction promised as part of Leggett’s agreement.
“The Fillmore has been collecting signed memorabilia from various artists who have performed there over the past couple of years that will be used as auction materials at the event being planned,” Bell-Pearson said. “We anticipate coordinating the auction with two possible events, such as the Executive’s Ball for the Arts and the Silver Spring Jazz Festival.”
Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said that despite the lease requirements for community uses, the Fillmore was not a good venue for many charitable events. “This is not a space where you can have a Boy Scouts meeting or a civic association meeting. There are other places for that. This is a unique space,” he said.
Lacefield said the primary focus of the Fillmore was as an economic development engine, and that it had successfully contributed to night life and a dining scene that now has more than 20 restaurants.
But the Fillmore’s impact as an economic development initiative is difficult to measure.
Diegel, the community leader, said he has heard of fans coming from as far as Pennsylvania and West Virginia for shows and then staying the night at local hotels. “It gets more people to Silver Spring. It gets more people to see what we have to offer,” he said.
But Glass, a former president of South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, said he was still waiting for the stretch of Colesville Road around the venue to develop the restaurants and night life the community expected. “We are still waiting for the great promises of the Fillmore to materialize,” he said.
The lease also entitles the county to six free tickets to every performance.
It isn’t unusual for municipalities to receive charitable tickets as trade-offs for subsidizing sports or entertainment venues. Indeed, thousands of youths receive free or reduced-price tickets to Nationals, Wizards and Redskins games every year.
There is no stipulation that the tickets given to the county be pegged to charity, and most have gone to county officials.
In the first 20 months the venue was open, from September 2011 through April of this year, officials received 476 tickets to Fillmore events, according to county records, including shows by D.C. rapper Wale and a highly sought-after New Year’s Eve bash put on by Philadelphia hip-hop group the Roots.
Staff from more than a dozen agencies or offices, as well as two council members’ offices, have received tickets to shows, the records show. With ticket prices averaging between $25 and $55 each, plus $8 in fees per seat, the tickets received and forfeited fees over that period are likely worth over $20,000.
For instance, Leggett’s office had received a total of 82 tickets to 26 shows through April, including two tickets to Anthrax and four to the Roots. Leggett spokesman Lacefield said the county executive had only attended opening night.
“The county executive has not been involved in distribution of Fillmore [tickets] personally,” Lacefield said.
Council members Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer (D-At Large) also each received tickets to two shows. Floreen said she attended neither and Riemer said he attended only a show last year by Swedish metal band Messhuggah.
Darian Unger, a former chairman of the Silver Spring citizens advisory board, called the ticket arrangement “disappointing to the point of being skeezy.”
“It’s disappointing and it just gives the aura of corruption,” he said. “What a terrible portrayal that gives. I would hope that public officials would be above that sort of thing.”