The legendary Fillmore Music Hall in San Francisco occupies a hallowed place in rock history, having propelled Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and others to superstardom. Its parent company, Live Nation, has opened Fillmore spinoffs in Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other major cities, each of which routinely hosts performances by internationally known musicians.
The Fillmore’s next stop: Silver Spring, where a 2,000-capacity concert hall will open in September amid a five-day extravaganza of parties with ribbon-cuttings and sheet cake, open-house tours of dressing rooms and VIP lounges, and multiple performances by musicians more commonly seen on the pages of People magazine than on the streets of Montgomery County.
It’s a fitting beginning for a facility that Silver Spring residents say could be the biggest deal for the community since Discovery Communications and the American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre and Cultural Center came to town, and the linchpin that will complete its long redevelopment process.
It’s a beginning that almost never happened, thanks to broken business deals, lawsuits and budget woes more commonly associated with high-stakes real estate than with municipal government.
“This project has survived two governors, two county executives, three county councils, three heads of economic development and three heads of park and planning,” says Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development Group of Silver Spring, the project’s developer. “From the beginning, everyone liked the concept. The question was: How do we make it happen?”
The story starts nearly 10 years ago, when former County Executive Doug Duncan first imagined a live music venue in Montgomery County. AFI and Discovery Communications already were on their way to Silver Spring, and Duncan was looking for the capstone to his efforts to revitalize the community’s long-ailing downtown.
“Silver Spring was doing well, and we thought: What else does it need, and what else would merit government assistance?” Duncan says.
County officials approached Lee Development Group, which owned the site of the historic 1948 art deco J.C. Penney façade on Colesville Road and Fenton Street. The building behind the façade had been torn down years before, and the property had served as a parking lot for 18 years. The county’s proposition: If Lee Development Group would donate part of the site, the county would work with the state to build a live music venue there. In return, Lee would be able to develop a future commercial project on the rest of the property.
Lee says his family has owned land in downtown Silver Spring “since it was a cornfield,” and he remembers when the place was so devoid of foot traffic “you could shoot a cannon [downtown] at 5 p.m. and not hit anyone.” Donating the site, valued at $3.5 million to $4 million, was “a significant investment” for the group. But when Lee considered how a nightly influx of several hundred new customers could affect Silver Spring’s economy, he thought: “What a neat idea.”
“The idea of an arts and entertainment district in Silver Spring was very, very creative,” he says. “Unfortunately for us, it also happened to be very, very expensive.”
In 2003, the county and Lee Development Group started working with The Birchmere Music Hall, a small venue in Alexandria, Va., to build a second Birchmere in Silver Spring. Three years later, state economic development officials joined them to make the idea a reality.
Initial public reaction was overwhelmingly positive, says Dan Cohen, co-founder of Silver Spring Forward, a citizens’ group that advocates continued revitalization in downtown Silver Spring. When the group posted a petition online for a live music venue in downtown Silver Spring, they didn’t know whether they would receive any support beyond friends and family members. Instead, it netted thousands of signatures seemingly overnight.
“We were stunned,” Cohen says. “It just immediately produced this huge wave of public support to get this thing going.”
Immediately, though, there was a hurdle. It’s not unusual for a developer to seek approval for a mixed-use development—such as housing combined with retail or office buildings—and then later, build a public amenity like a park as part of the deal. But this proposal reversed conventional planning. Seeking approval for a music hall to be followed by an adjoining office building and hotel sometime in the future meant a “long, tedious process” of negotiating with various county agencies, Lee says. He estimates his development group spent roughly $3.5 million coming up with plans to seek the necessary approvals.
Then, in July 2007, the deal with Birchmere fell apart.
“For this to make sense to us as an economic-development initiative, the venue had to be able to accommodate large numbers of people,” says county spokesman Patrick Lacefield, “and the Birchmere’s proposals kept getting smaller and smaller.”
Shortly after the deal collapsed, county officials announced they were working with Live Nation. That September, the county signed a letter of intent with the Los Angeles-based concert promoter, which bills itself as “the world’s leading live entertainment and eCommerce company.”
Live Nation, which operates Fillmore and House of Blues clubs throughout the country and promotes concerts at the Jiffy Lube Live, the Warner Theatre and the Verizon Center in the D.C. area, wasn’t an easy sell in the community.
Silver Spring Forward was one of several community groups to “kind of back away a step” when they heard a large corporate partner had replaced the relatively small, local Birchmere. “We didn’t know who they were, what their intentions were, or whether we would continue to support this,” Cohen says.
But as details of the deal emerged over the next few months, Cohen and others concluded that not only would Live Nation lure internationally known performers and regional audiences to Silver Spring, it also would serve the community itself.
Its lease calls for Live Nation to bring in acts that cater to a wide variety of tastes, from hard rock to smooth jazz to children’s fare. It also requires the Fillmore to open its doors to community groups when it isn’t hosting events.
“Community members, especially business owners downtown, had a lot of questions about the impact once it opened, and we continue to have an ongoing conversation about that,” says Alan Friedman, co-founder of Silver Spring Forward. “But our initial questions have been answered, and there has been no organized opposition in the community whatsoever.”
Once that hurdle was overcome, other obstacles emerged.
Construction initially was projected to cost $8 million, with the county and state contributing $4 million each. Live Nation would contribute $2 million to outfit the interior and would lease the building and pay for maintenance and utilities once the venue opened, in addition to handling day-to-day programming and operations.
Seth Hurwitz, whose Bethesda-based It’s My Party (IMP) owns the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., had stayed out of music hall discussions when the county was working with the Birchmere on a small, cabaret-style venue. But when the county announced it was working with Live Nation, Hurwitz told The Washington Post in November 2007 that he could provide a “superior music venue at a dramatically reduced cost.”