Montgomery County's weird deal with Live Nation

fillmore silver spring
The Fillmore, now under construction (Photo: Jay Westcott)

The time for criticism had passed. If anything, the Montgomery County Planning Board’s meeting on July 15 was a time for apology. “I was wrong on this project two years ago,” said board member Joe Alfandre, who then asked Lee Development Group President Bruce Lee to forgive him for “probably” holding up such a “splendid” development.


Long story short

Live Nation gets a free rock club. Montgomery County taxpayers get...?


“I wish you didn’t have to be a guinea pig on this,” said Alfandre.

“Being a guinea pig in Montgomery County isn’t easy,” Lee replied, by way of absolving him.

And with that, the board voted swiftly, and unanimously, to approve an $8 million, 2,000-person-capacity rock club in Silver Spring, which is being funded entirely by state and county taxpayers and will be operated by Live Nation, a national behemoth in the concert business. Any quibbles about that didn’t come up during the meeting — and no one expected them to, either. This, after all, is how such controversies often end: with a soft chorus of “yay”s, followed by the next item on the agenda.

Why did the Birchmere deal fall apart?

It was never supposed to be Live Nation. In 2002, Doug Duncan, then Montgomery’s county executive, and Lee Development Group (LDG) began talks with the Birchmere, the Alexandria-based cabaret hall, about building a second venue at the old J.C. Penney site at Colesville Road, one of the otherwise-rejuvenated downtown Silver Spring’s “missing teeth.”

Talks stalled for a couple of years as larger projects, like the Silver Spring Civic Building and the Strathmore Music Hall, moved ahead, but in October, 2006, MoCo officially announced an agreement much like its eventual deal with Live Nation: The county and state would each pay $4 million to build the Birchmere, and LDG, in exchange for giving the land to the county, would have 15 years to develop the rest of the site — more than double what the county usually permits — and wouldn’t have to provide the usual 20 percent of public space.

By the following summer, with current Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett now in office, the county declared the Birchmere deal dead, and two days later the Montgomery Gazette reported on talks between the county and Live Nation. Two months later, the county announced a preliminary deal, and in January, 2008, it became official. In addition to the county and state funding, the deal also requires Live Nation to: spend a minimum of $2 million outfitting the interior of the Fillmore; pay for all maintenance; donate $30,000 annually to Celebrate Silver Spring; and provide three free uses for charity, three free county uses, and 30 discounted community uses per year. The Fillmore, meanwhile, is allowed to serve alcohol until midnight and retains exclusive naming rights to the club. (Good thing Jiffy Lube Live is already taken.)

What the county couldn’t accomplish in five years of negotiations with the Birchmere — a signed lease — was accomplished in half a year with Live Nation.

“Nobody, to this day, will explain what the deal was and why it fell apart,” says Silver Spring resident Rich Swanson, who launched a “Save the Birchmere” campaign back in 2007. He speculates that LDG preferred the “cachet” of Live Nation, and that LDG and Leggett “had made some moves to get Live Nation during the time that the Lees were also working with the Birchmere people.”

The Birchmere wouldn’t comment, and several Live Nation and Ticketmaster spokespeople — the two companies recently merged — didn’t return my calls. But LDG President Bruce Lee denies there was any overlap. One piece of evidence suggests otherwise: A floor plan in the county’s preliminary agreement with Live Nation is dated July 16, 2007, and yet, it wasn’t until three days later that the county sent its termination letter to the Birchmere. When I ask Lee about this discrepancy, he says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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