Bad blood rises over music halls
Montgomery, Prince George’s spar over state funding in deals to build two concert venues
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties both have secured tentative deals with two music halls, but both venues still need assurances of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to open their doors.
With the state facing a projected $1.7 billion deficit, and Prince George’s facing problems of its own, including a failing hospital system, state and local aid for both deals could be hard to find.
Already the counties have disagreed as to who should get this year’s $2 million bond bill that was intended for the Birchmere music hall in downtown Silver Spring. Another $2 million in state aid is expected in fiscal 2009.
Since the bill was approved, however, negotiations between the Birchmere and Montgomery County fell through. On Wednesday, the county announced a preliminary partnership with another entertainment company, Live Nation, to open a Fillmore music hall on the same site.
The same day, the University of Maryland, College Park announced its own plan to bring the Birchmere to Prince George’s County as part of the university’s East Campus expansion project. The agreement was brought together by the university’s vice president of administrative affairs, Douglas M. Duncan — who as county executive in Montgomery had negotiated the Birchmere deal in a revitalized Silver Spring before leaving office last year.
The cost of the Prince George’s project is estimated at between $8 million and $10 million; the music hall is scheduled to open in late 2010 or early 2011.
Follow the project?
Duncan (D) and his successor, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), each maintains that the state money should go toward his project and the law authorizing the funding is on his side.
‘‘Our view on the College Park venue is the more music and music venues the better, but our view is that the money should go towards Silver Spring revitalization and should not follow the University of Maryland site in College Park,” said Leggett spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield. ‘‘This is specifically stated in the law, that that’s what it goes for, not that [the money] follows whatever partner may or may not be involved.”
Montgomery’s nonbinding letter of intent with Live Nation calls for an $8 million commitment — $4 million each from the state and county. Live Nation will contribute up to $2 million, and the Lee Development Group, which owns the Silver Spring land, will contribute the $3.5 million in land value.
The possibility of the state withdrawing its funding and rerouting it to the College Park project has not been considered. ‘‘We feel unconcerned about where the money is going to go,” Lacefield said.
But the state money was slated for the Birchmere and should follow the venue, argued Duncan and Prince George’s lawmakers.
‘‘Montgomery County has to explain why Live Nation needs a grant. They have to show local support for the venue,” Duncan said. ‘‘Ideally, the money should go to both of us.”
Without the state’s financial commitment, he said, the university cannot complete the Birchmere project.
‘‘We believe there is money in the capital budget to follow the Birchmere. We want to make sure that Montgomery County is taken care of and that Prince George’s is taken care of,” said Del. Ben Barnes (D-Dist. 21) of College Park. ‘‘I don’t think anything will get funded this year [with the budget deficit]. This deal just happened, and I feel confident that we are committed to it.”
But even if no funding comes through this year, the Prince George’s delegation said it will still lobby for the money.
‘‘We certainly will be pushing for the money. The budget item was written for the Birchmere,” said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Dist. 21) of Beltsville, who said state officials and Gov. Martin O’Malley can be convinced to fund the campus project.
‘‘Everything is negotiable. We have to look at things like education and health care, and then we can look at the remaining money ... It’s like any family budget: We are paying our bills and once bills are paid, we can look to pay for good projects and both these are good projects,” said Frush, who chairs the county’s House delegation.
So far, details of the university’s plan are murky. Duncan said the university is still in discussions with the Birchmere owners and the county.
The university has not asked the county for money yet, said Kwasi Holman, president and CEO of the Prince George’s Economic Development Corp.
The College Park deal
As part of the deal for the main 500-seat venue, Birchmere officials agreed to build and operate a smaller stage for up-and-coming musicians.
‘‘There are many important issues related to the East Campus project, some of which may need subsidies from the developer, the University or the government. Graduate student housing and public safety are high on everyone’s list,” said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Dist. 21) of College Park in an e-mail to The Gazette. ‘‘What role the Birchmere might play in all this is something the university, the city, Councilman Eric Olson, and the 21st District Delegation will be discussing. I look forward to learning more about the Birchmere’s offerings and business model.”
Birchmere owner Gary Oelze said his company has not even considered that the project could be completed without state help.
‘‘We haven’t thought that far. That’s a negative thought,” he said Thursday. ‘‘We will approach the state and hope they see it that way. I think discussing how to build it is premature right now.”
Whatever the decision on the bond bill and state aid, the animosity between the two sides is likely to continue.
Birchmere officials have accused Leggett of reneging on the Silver Spring deal when Montgomery ended negotiations in July. Leggett has maintained that the company failed to sign a letter of intent.
Leggett calls the Live Nation deal the best deal for the county when compared to the ‘‘$8 million plus” he would have spent satisfying demands by the Birchmere’s owners on a hall that would serve up to only 450 people at a time. Fillmore clubs, which Live Nation took over this year, seat between 800 and 3,500 people.
‘‘The thing that pisses me off about all this is that they are describing bringing in a club like they had with the Birchmere,” Oelze said of the deal with Live Nation. ‘‘Why did they go out and look for another Birchmere?”
After a call from Duncan and ‘‘after Leggett said get the hell out of here,” Oelze said talks about the university project began.
Lacefield said there was ‘‘absolutely no overlap” in the decisions to close the door on the Birchmere and to examine new options for downtown Silver Spring.
Ted Mankin, a vice president of booking with Live Nation, said Montgomery officials approached him about the potential partnership ‘‘midsummer.”
‘‘I looked at it as a talent buyer here ... Virtually every day, I was hearing, ‘How come we don’t have more rooms to play? Find me a room’,” Mankin said.
So far College Park residents said they are excited about the Birchmere project, but are worried about the traffic jams on Route 1, the already heavily traveled road leading to the college.
‘‘They’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Sam Bronstein, a College Park activist. ‘‘There are about 70,000 cars a day on Route 1, and from what we can figure, the safe load is 50,000 ... In the afternoon it’s horrible.”
Traffic or not, M.H. ‘‘Jim” Estepp, president of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable and a former county councilman, said the Birchmere will add to the county’s economic profile.
‘‘The University of Maryland is an integral part of our economic and educational infrastructure,” he said. ‘‘The university [already] has a world-class performing arts center, and we certainly believe the university is the natural location for an addition like this one and needs the funding support from the state.”
Staff Writers Jeffrey K. Lyles and Deborah Stoudt contributed to this report.