Wednesday, July 25, 2007

County’s Birchmere talks closed down

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Negotiations between the county and the owners of the Alexandria, Va.-based Birchmere music hall to open a second location in Silver Spring are over, a county spokesman said, but the Birchmere’s owner said he was under the impression talks were still open.

‘‘As far as I know, we have a deal with the county that we’ve been working on for five years,” said Birchmere owner Gary Oelze on Tuesday. ‘‘As far as the Birchmere’s concerned, there are no negotiations that have broken down.”

But county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Tuesday the county was already looking at alternatives for the Colesville Road site. Those alternatives include a music hall, Lacefield said, but he would not comment specifically on options.

A letter was sent July 19 from Pradeep Ganguly, the county’s economic development director, to Jim Matthews, a Birchmere partner, notifying the Birchmere of the county’s intentions to stop negotiations, Lacefield said. According to the letter, ‘‘despite good faith negotiations by both the county and the Birchmere, the parties remain far apart on critical business terms.”

Oelze said Tuesday he had heard rumors of problems with the county and would be contacting his attorney about the news.

‘‘We’re looking to see if we can get something that would be of greater economic benefit to the Silver Spring area, something that would, in terms of the money spent, jobs created and the economic impact, would be better than what we were talking about with the Birchmere,” Lacefield said.

Lacefield would not comment specifically on what was lacking in the Birchmere’s plans for Silver Spring.

The nationally known Birchmere has operated out of Alexandria since 1966. Discussions of a second venue in Silver Spring began in 2003 when the county approached the music hall’s owners.

The partnership with the county, state and Lee Development Group, which owns the former J.C. Penney department store property on Colesville Road where the Birchmere was to be located, was announced last summer. The second Birchmere was to be larger than the first, with $2 million in contributions from the state and county. Lacefield said the county would still contribute funding for an alternative project, and he did not anticipate problems in getting the state to contribute to an alternative plan.

David Edgerley, state Secretary of Business and Economic Development, said in a statement Tuesday his department ‘‘was notified of the change” and disappointed that the Birchmere would not be part of the project.

‘‘The state’s involvement was focused on assisting the county in partnership to build a performance venue in downtown Silver Spring to complement their ongoing revitalization. We hope to work with the county to realize the construction of this theatre,” Edgerley said in the statement.

Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development, would not comment on the negotiations, as they were between the county and the Birchmere’s owners, he said.

Silver Spring residents have been vocal in their support of the Birchmere, even creating a Web site, silverspringforward.org, dedicated to persuading county and state officials to move the process forward.

Dan Cohen, co-founder of Silver Spring Forward, which gathered more than a thousand signatures in support of landing the Birchmere, also declined to comment.

‘‘We’ll wait until the dust settles and assess from that point,” Cohen said, adding that he had heard rumors of a breakdown in the deal circulating for some time.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said Tuesday she was still confident that the county would be able to bring a ‘‘high-quality entertainment venue to Silver Spring.”

‘‘A lot of folks have worked hard to make sure that we can bring a music venue to the J.C. Penney building,” Ervin said.

Staff Writers Janel Davis, Danny Jacobs and Douglas Tallman contributed to this report.