Racetrack Funding Bill Being Laid Aside Amid Racial, Regional Divisions

A race last week at Laurel Park Racetrack. Twitter photo

A measure that would fund improvements at racetrack facilities in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties — but not in Baltimore City — is not expected to advance this legislative session. Its chances for success were doomed by geographic and racial tensions that flared as lawmakers became aware of the legislation, sources said.

The bill also became caught up in the legislative churn involving Baltimore City leaders’ determination to keep the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course and their desire to promote a revitalization plan for the track and the neighborhood.

House Bill 990 and Senate Bill 883 would allow the Maryland Economic Development Corporation to float bonds that would fund improvements at Laurel Park and the Bowie Race Course Training Center. Those bonds would have been repaid through the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account — slot machine proceeds — along with matching funds put up by The Stronach Group, owners of the two sites.

The bills, sponsored by Del. Mark S. Chang (D-Anne Arundel) and Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) did not include funding for Pimlico, the Baltimore track also owned by The Stronach Group, which hosts the Preakness each year.

That, according to one source, created “all kinds of racial tensions” and amounted to “a stink bomb” being thrown into the legislative mix. With the absence due to illness of Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the longtime leader of the chamber and a soothing presence, legislative leaders have decided to let the measure die without a vote.

Chang stressed repeatedly in an interview that he was open to amending the bill to include Pimlico, though he conceded the measure was not originally drafted to help the Baltimore track, nor does it do so as currently crafted.

“My perspective is a multi-jurisdictional approach that [we] have an improved horse racing industry all across the state of Maryland,” he said. “That way all the jurisdictions win.”

That explanation didn’t satisfy Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City).

“There was never any intention to shore up and take care of Pimlico through the bill,” he said. “Just adding Pimlico onto the bill in the 11th hour isn’t the right way of doing things.”

Mosby recently called a news conference to spotlight what he said were outdated and ill-kept residential facilities for racetrack workers at Laurel, an unusual move for a legislator from another jurisdiction but one that he insisted was based on genuine concern for the workers.

He displayed pictures taken by a worker that showed run-down facilities, mold and a single shower that he said is shared by 32 men. Mosby contacted Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), who subsequently toured the facility and ordered inspectors to investigate.

Worker housing at Laurel Park race track, submitted by a racing industry whistleblower.

Chang said the deficiencies at Laurel Park bolster the case for his bill.

“When I initially put the bill in, it was really to help all the facilities be a world class facility,” he said. “But now since being informed of the different conditions there, I think it’s imperative that those habitational areas in the buildings or facilities within Laurel in particular be improved significantly.”

A number of Prince George’s legislators signed on to Chang’s bill and its Senate companion.

That plainly rankled lawmakers from the city and caused tension within the Legislative Black Caucus, according to a long-serving lawmaker – particularly given speculation that the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, could depart for a more modern or better cared for venue. There have been rumors for years that The Stronach Group would like to move the race to Laurel Park.

“It’s important for the Preakness to stay in Baltimore City,” Mosby said. “A $30 million economic impact to the city every single year that would be lost for someone to just try to up and move it.”

“Why would Prince George’s senators want to improve Laurel when it’s in Anne Arundel County?” asked Sen. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore). “It’s just a non-conventional way to use taxpayers’ money.”

“The last time I checked,” Hayes added, “Laurel didn’t have a lot of bustling hotels for people to stay that travel from around the country to attend the races. There’s a 150-year history at the old hilltop at Pimlico, and one of the things that we hope to do is make the racetrack an integral part of the community.”

Throughout the legislative session, Baltimore City lawmakers and other officials have been touting a $400 million redevelopment proposal for Pimlico and the surrounding Park Heights neighborhood. The plan was put together by the Maryland Stadium Authority, but it came with no accompanying funding proposal and the blueprint remains nothing more than an idea at present.

Legislation by leaders of the Baltimore City delegation that would require the stadium authority to launch a second phase of its Pimlico study also appears to be stalled.

Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) defended the proposal to use video-terminal proceeds to improve Laurel and Bowie, given the year-round benefit the venues provide to area farms and their workers.

“This is not about trying to move the Preakness,” he said. “This is about improving the number one race track in the state in terms of days per year. They race almost 170 days a year at that race track. That race track needs improvements. The owners realize it needs improvements.

“So a lot of us are saying, if Maryland is going to be invested in the horse racing industry, which we are… then what’s the problem with helping out this race track, getting money that’s already budgeted? It wouldn’t cost the state any extra dollars.”

Mosby scoffed at that argument, saying that “only 15 percent of the [Laurel Park] parking lot” is in Prince George’s.

“It was more Prince George’s County versus Baltimore City,” he said of recent tensions.

“It’s not often that you see legislation like this pit one jurisdiction against another. As legislators, we’re here to advocate for our constituents and our own individual areas, but at the core of it all is that we have a stronger Maryland.”

Some lawmakers not directly involved in the dispute have noted that Laurel and Pimlico are only 28 miles apart by car and have suggested that some of the regional tensions are overblown.

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus sought to tamp down the controversy, telling Maryland Matters, “I want to put people at ease. The Black Caucus is standing with Baltimore City in insuring that the Preakness stays at Pimlico. I want to make that very clear. Our intent is to fight to keep that race at Pimlico.”

He said investing in one of Maryland’s tracks should not be seen as a threat to another.

“I think what we need to do is put our heads together to come up with a bill that makes sense that represents all three jurisdictions, and I think we’re doing that right now. And then we’ll go from there.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent more than two decades on local television, including 14 years as host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the D.C. metro region. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County, as well as a reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. Bruce also is the host of the weekly The Bruce DePuyt Podcast.

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