A Path Forward for Pimlico?

The track at Pimlico Race Course with dilapidated homes in the background. State officials are examining a proposal to improve the track and the surrounding Park Heights neighborhood. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Lawmakers from the Baltimore region say they are ready to fight for funding – or anything else – that’s needed to keep the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course.

The House delegations from Baltimore City and Baltimore County met jointly in Annapolis Friday for the first time in recent memory to hear presentations about a $424 million proposal to revitalize Pimlico and its surrounding neighborhood. That proposal, which was released by the Maryland Stadium Authority in December, has not been publicly embraced by the race course’s owner, The Stronach Group.

At the Annapolis presentation, Baltimore Development Corporation President William H. Cole IV told lawmakers that Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D), who endorsed the plan when it was released, met with Stronach Group officials as recently as Tuesday.

The $424 million proposal would tear down and rebuild the Pimlico Race Course, with a goal to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. Plans call for a slightly shorter track, turned on an angle, which would allow neighborhood streets to flow through the course’s acreage outside of the racing season. The plan also calls for athletic fields to be installed on the track’s infield, year-round community uses for a new $252.2 million clubhouse and neighborhood amenities like a small hotel and a full-size grocery store.

Cole told lawmakers the goal of the plan – aside from dissuading The Stronach Group from moving the Preakness out of the city, which would require a change in state law – was to spur other development in the Park Heights neighborhood.

William H. Cole IV

But lawmakers had a number of questions that remained unanswered Friday, most of them surrounding the cost of the project.

A source of the funding for the overhaul was not identified in the Maryland Stadium Authority report.

Cole said Friday that he wanted to “dispel the myth” that there is a $424 million “ask” for state or local funding for the project.

The city will commit funding for infrastructure, utility and site improvements, Cole said, similar to other redevelopment projects. And there’s money available from state funds to support the horse racing industry for some track improvements. The rest of the project’s costs and who would pay for them is still the subject of ongoing discussions with the Stronach Group, Cole said.

Other points of the redevelopment, such as how year-round community access to the site could be guaranteed on privately own land or how much construction spending should be dedicated to minority-owned businesses, have also not been resolved.

While the Maryland Jockey Club and Stronach Group participated in the study and allowed the MSA to explore options for their property, “until they have committed to this plan, we can’t have that conversation,” Cole said.

In the past, the Stronach Group has publicly pondered whether to move the Preakness Stakes south to Laurel Park, which the company also owns. At a briefing for the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee earlier this week, Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo said Stronach is actively trying to attract the Breeders’ Cup to the Laurel track in 2022 as part of the company’s master plan. The company has previously said an infusion of city and state money would be needed to keep the Preakness at a refurbished or revitalized Pimlico.

In January, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said it was more logical for the Preakness to come to Laurel when so many other projects in the city, including school revitalization, also need state capital investments.

Cole told lawmakers on Friday that both the city and county had an economic interest in trying to keep the Preakness at its traditional home.

“Losing the Preakness would have a tremendous adverse impact on the region. …It’s the equivalent of us losing the Super Bowl, not just once, but every single year,” Cole said. “…Losing the Preakness takes the spotlight off our entire region and shifts it much further south.”

Del. Cheryl Glenn (D), the chair of the Baltimore City delegation, expressed resolve during the meeting to preserve the race – and the track.

“We’re not going to lose the Preakness. To anybody,” she said.

“Right, colleagues?” she pressed, prompting some cheers from the lawmakers assembled.

Neighborhood change

Brian White, an executive vice president of LifeBridge Health, also talked to the delegations Friday about the medical group’s $100 million plan to begin revitalization of Sinai Hospital, just to the east of Pimlico.

White said LifeBridge held off on previous development plans to see what came of the Maryland Stadium Authority study, hoping for a broader view of revitalization in Park Heights.

“What we’re talking about is not just a medical facility. It’s not just about a race. It’s about our community,” White said.

He flashed statistics about unemployment and life expectancy in Park Heights, compared to Mt. Washington, two communities separated by Northern Parkway – and much more.

More residents in Mt. Washington own their homes, and there are fewer vacant lots, lower unemployment and fewer children living in poverty. A resident of Mt. Washington can expect to live for 81.9 years, on average, compared to 68 years in Park Heights.

“That’s disgusting. That’s gross. That’s why we’re here,” White said.

Cole said the investments of LifeBridge and at Pimlico together could amount to transformational change for Park Heights.

“Working together, I genuinely believe we can have a generational change to support the Park Heights community and all surrounding neighborhoods,” Cole said.

Del. Tony Bridges (D-Baltimore City) said he’s lived in the area around Pimlico and it was worthy of reinvestment efforts.

“It’s not necessarily just about preserving the Preakness; it’s about preserving a community that has seen significant decline over the last 30-plus years,” Bridges said.

After the meeting, Glenn said that while she doesn’t have a good idea yet of what might be asked of legislators this session, she’s focused on keeping the race in the city.

“I can tell you that this delegation stands ready, willing and able to do whatever we need to do to transform the Pimlico race track and the surrounding communities for the good of Baltimore City,” Glenn said.

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