- The September groundbreaking of The Fillmore. (Photo: Samuel Corum)
In spite of the recession and annual budgets cuts in Montgomery County, downtown Silver Spring has undergone tremendous growth in recent years. But one thing it lacks, as most everyone agrees, is a sizable venue for live rock music. That's almost certain to change in the fall of 2011 when the Fillmore, a $11.2 million music hall to be run by Live Nation, is expected to open. On its face, The Fillmore will be a welcome addition to the area's cultural landscape, but some have wondered whether it's worth the cost to the county and state, both of which committed $4 million in taxpayer dollars to fund the construction. Such doubts only spread when it was revealed that the project was $3.2 million over budget, and that Montgomery County, much to councilmembers' dismay, would cover the difference.
It's been a long and winding road for the Fillmore, or a long, strange trip, or whatever rock 'n' roll reference you prefer. Originally, the plan called for the Birchmere, an Alexandria-based cabaret hall, to open a new venue in the old J.C. Penney site on Colesville Road. But after five years of talks between the county, Birchmere, and Lee Development Group, County Executive Ike Leggett declared the deal dead. Just days later, it was reported that Live Nation would instead be moving into the space. For a project that had been in limbo for so long, this was a suspiciously swift turnaround, and some questioned why the Birchmere deal fell apart. Was it because an agreement couldn't be reached, or had LDG failed to negotiate in good faith, keeping the Birchmere on one line while trying to strike a deal with Live Nation on the other?
The Birchmere was clearly caught off guard, insisting it had a deal with the county and LDG, but when it became clear they'd lost out to Live Nation, they refused to talk about it. Lee Development Group, meanwhile, was evasive about its weird deal with the county and Live Nation, though eventually a vice president at Live Nation confirmed that LDG had approached them. Regardless of how the deal was struck, it was as good as done, and even those who had launched a "Save the Birchmere" campaign were resigned to — and in some cases, not unhappy about — the fact that the Fillmore would be coming to town.
But one man chose to fight it: Seth Hurwitz, the co-owner of I.M.P., which owns the 9:30 Club. In June, I.M.P. sued top Maryland officials, alleging that the state couldn't disburse its $4 million grant for the construction of the Fillmore because several conditions imposed by the General Assembly hadn't been met, including a comprehensive cost analysis of the project and an economic feasibility study. In September, I.M.P. added Montgomery County officials to the lawsuit, and since then the two sides have been trading barbs through court filings. Next week, the court will hear arguments on the state and county's motions to dismiss the lawsuit.
Hurwitz wants to halt the Fillmore's construction, and for obvious reasons: It might compete for acts with the similarly sized 9:30 Club. But the lawsuit is even more personal than that. As I wrote in August, "Hurwitz lives in Montgomery County — Bethesda, to be exact — and despite running the most successful club of its kind in the country, I.M.P. never even got the chance to compete for the project. When he heard, back in 2007, that the county had reached a preliminary agreement with Live Nation, Hurwitz offered to pay double the rent and contribute $2 million to the construction — or to pay for the entire construction if LDG handed the site over to him instead." His offer was denied.
Hurwitz is looking out for his own interests, of course, but he does raise a good question: Why wasn't I.M.P. considered? Few discerning rock fans would prefer Live Nation over the 9:30 Club, that's for sure. But even leaving that question aside, there remain many others about how and why Montgomery County entered into such an expensive, lopsided deal with Live Nation and LDG. Those questions may never be answered to our satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Fillmore's construction continues unabated. I can't wait to see Train perform there next fall.