Frank DeFilippo: Pimlico Is ‘Location, Location, Location’ in Reverse

Frank DeFilippo asks: Why spend $424 million on refurbishing Pimlico when the Preakness is a once-a-year event? Preakness Facebook photo

A race track is a rare luxury for a city that has everything, but Baltimore’s needs far outweigh its wants, especially one that the ministers of influence haven’t figured out how to pay for.

Here’s a partial inventory.

The Royal Farms Arena (nee: Civic Center), in Baltimore, is a ramshackle structure that is so dilapidated and out-of-date that it cost the city a pro basketball team, a hockey team and even Ed Hale’s indoor soccer team.

The Civic Center was built broken. A former reporter for The Sun, Anthony Lukas, launched a career as a City Hall reporter covering the Civic Center’s shoddy construction and cost overruns that eventually took him to The New York Times and an unrelated Pulitzer Prize. The massive yurt was built by the late Victor Frenkil – the king of cost overruns – and, at one point, lacked even hot water in the public facilities (and maybe still does.)

The Convention Center, a gift to the city from Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) through the political clubhouse of boss Irv Kovens, has long since lost its capacity to accommodate modern conventions despite periodic renovations and expansions. Large conventions regularly bypass Baltimore in favor of more commodious surroundings and more welcoming climates (it’s impossible to replicate weather, although with the help of climate change we’re getting close.)

The city-owned hotel, built by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) and a payback to labor unions, has fallen short of its intended goal of boosting convention bookings and a chronic money-loser at that. If it had worked, the next step probably would have been a call for expansion of the Convention Center in an endless roundelay of one facility outpacing the other.

The bafflement has always been: Private entrepreneurs wanted to build the hotel, and even buy it after it was built. There has yet to be a compelling explanation of why the city is in the hotel business.

Harbor Place, Baltimore’s entry into the tourism business when its manufacturing base went bust, is a shambolic hulk of its former yogurt-stand grandeur. Purchased more than five years ago by Ashkenazy Acquisitions, of New York, the waterside pavilions appear smudged and in disrepair. The twin halls have lost tenants and for a period were partially boarded up and fenced off. The new owners seem indifferent to the city’s showcase industry.

Rouse was originally given a sweetheart lease under the headstrong “Do It Now” reign of Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D) after he resisted waterfront development for years. The city has never made a dime from Harbor Place under the terms of the lease agreement. It is not known whether the original terms of the lease still apply.

Little Italy, the eastern end of the city’s mile-long gold coast that begins at the twin ballyards, is down to a handful of restaurants from is heyday of more than two dozen – many of them shuttered by fierce competition and by aging owners. Little Italy has become the downtrodden neighbor of the glitzy Harbor East as it expands northward into the once-thriving ethnic neighborhood.

Frank A. DeFilippo

One of the advantages that Baltimore has had over other cities for the past 40 or so years is that its tourist center is stretched across one contiguous mile or longer. It’s all there, in one walkable package – hotels, restaurants, convention centers, ball parks, shops, fast food stops, water activity, the Aquarium. (As a bonus, the city’s erogenous zone, the Block, is only – you guessed it – a couple of blocks upstream.)

This is Baltimore, spread out before the immediate world to see and come visit or make a pit stop on the drive between New York and the District of Columbia. The curse on Baltimore is that of always being a pass-through town and not a destination stop. Now there’s even less reason to slam the brakes.

So just why, it is fair to ask, would any elected official even consider investing $424 million in a day-a-year venture several miles off the beaten path that doesn’t produce enough revenue to support itself and has to be propped up by the public through another gambling revenue source, casino proceeds.

That kind of money, if it can be had, would be better spent on resuscitating Baltimore’s mile-long tourist trap rather than reviving a dying-to-dead racetrack industry with a one-day-a-year survival story. The revenue to the city would be far greater from a business that’s open 365 days a year than the flash-in-the-pan Preakness, which, literally, could be run at any track in the country – including the newly renovated Laurel Race Course a few miles south of the city.

As a matter of history, Pimlico Race Course, under the ownership of the Cohen brothers, Herman and Ben, was scheduled to eventually disappear anyway. The track’s superstructure was built on a slab for easy removal and a ready foundation for its next use. It was designed to be ultimately demolished and make way for a shopping center.

The revenue loss to the city from the conventions that bypass Baltimore far exceeds the proceeds it receives from the Preakness. So to rebuild Pimlico Race Course for a squabbling family, father and daughter Stronach, seems an imprudent and shortsighted investment compared to refreshing the harborside attractions. (The association of black engineers, a gathering of about 10,000, announced recently that its annual convention is returning to Baltimore in 2022 after a lengthy absence.)

Frank Stronach is a Canadian horse breeder and racing aficionado who owns Pimlico, Laurel and the Bowie training track. His daughter, Belinda, has seized control of the family enterprise, claiming her father is no longer capable of running the business. The father is trying to oust his daughter from the day-to-day operation of the tracks. The last thing Maryland and Baltimore need is to get involved in a family feud to the tune of a half billion dollars.

Face it. Horse racing is dead. Pimlico, many years ago, with 60-day meets, was a hangout for neighborhood retirees and folks with plenty of time on their hands. But the neighborhood has changed and so have people.

It’s a two-part conundrum: Gamblers like action. So what to do with just short of an hour between races except maybe fuss with an electronic gadget or keep re-reading the Racing Form? Put another way, except for the actual two-minute run, racing is boring. And second, the racing industry failed to cultivate a new generation of followers. The millennials are all watching NASCAR or “March Madness,” if they’re not out tossing down Tequila shooters.

We’ve heard, many times before, that racing is about more than tracks. By their own estimates, it’s a half-billion-dollar industry in Maryland when all the breeding farms are included in the calculus. And it’s also a form of land preservation by keeping the farms green instead of selling out to developers. But there are other state programs and subsidies for that, too. Consider that the cost of redeveloping Pimlico for a single race is as much as the entire racing industry is worth – by the industry’s own estimates.

The plan released by the Maryland Stadium Authority anticipates that a new racetrack would be the centerpiece of the entire Pimlico area’s redevelopment. There’s a far less costly way of gussying up the neighborhood without including a new track. And for those who argue that the track will be a multi-purpose, 52-week facility, the answer is that the owners have been saying that for years about the existing facility and nothing’s ever happened. It’s location, location, location in reverse.

Social scientists and activists will argue that refreshing attractions along Pratt Street is merely spending more money along the water, an area that has received more than its share of civic largesse to the deprivation of blighted neighborhoods in the city.

But if a half billion dollars becomes available, there’s more than enough money to spread around. What’s more, gilding the waterfront produces revenue that would be available to replenish other areas of Baltimore as well.

One day a year, when the spotlight is on Baltimore, for better or worse, is not enough show-time to erase the 364-day news binge when the city is the focus for murders and riots. Use the money to make money. P.S. And put aside some cash to synchronize the city’s traffic lights.

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