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Government & Politics

Senate Measure Ties Funds for Race Tracks in Laurel, Bowie to Improvements at Pimlico

Pimlico, home of the Preakness, in 2018. Maryland Governor’s Office

The Maryland Senate has voted to advance a hastily drafted measure that would provide bond funds to renovate the state’s horse tracks.

After weeks of sometimes tense discussions about the fate of Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Race Course in Anne Arundel County, the re-fashioned bill zoomed out of the Budget and Taxation Committee and onto the Senate floor during a hectic day of legislative activity Friday.

The Senate accepted the committee’s amendments after brief discussion; a final vote is expected Monday, the last day of the legislative session.

Its fate in the House of Delegates is uncertain.

The Senate bill sets up a labyrinthian process that would allow The Stronach Group, the owner of the two tracks and the Bowie Training Center, to tap a portion of the slot machine proceeds that flow into the state’s Racetrack Facility Renewal Account.

Those funds would be used to repay bonds floated by the Maryland Economic Development Corporation to make improvements at the three sites.

Any renewal account funds would have to be matched by Stronach, the firm that owns the Preakness Stakes.

With the exception of $350,000 that would be used to improve the track at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, two-thirds of the resources made available by the bill would flow to Laurel and Bowie and one third would go to Pimlico.

The measure sets up an elaborate process that prevents the company from accessing the funds for Laurel and Bowie until redevelopment benchmarks at Pimlico are met. Failure to proceed along the measure’s seven-year timeline would give the city the power to issue fines of $1 million per month.

“For 16 years, Pimlico withered,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), the author of the compromise, during floor debate. “Despite all of The Stronach Group’s references that they have the greatest of intents, this bill says, ‘We’re not going to trust you, and we’re going to verify.’”

If the bill moves forward as is, the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, would remain in Baltimore for the next two years, but the measure does nothing to tie the race to the city beyond 2021, a potentially huge disappointment for Baltimore leaders.

The Preakness draws huge crowds and the focus of an international television audience to the northwest Baltimore track, but speculation has swirled that Stronach would like to move it to Laurel.

Referring to the stalemate between the firm and the city, Ferguson said, “This problem has existed for 16 years. Both sides have been incapable of coming together because their interests are so far unaligned.”

“By passing this legislation, we — the General Assembly — force a conversation between the city of Baltimore and the owners of the properties to figure out where this is going. … It does contemplate a world where, in seven years, the Pimlico site is something other than racing.”

Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), the city’s ex-officio mayor during Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s leave of absence, discussed the matter with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) at the Orioles home opener this week.

“The biggest thing on my agenda is Pimlico,” he said during a meeting with the city’s House delegation this week. [See related story.]

William Hecht, a top company executive, reacted favorably to the Senate’s action.

“This step forward recognized the important considerations that will need to be discussed about the future of Maryland racing and the interests of Baltimore City and all other stakeholders,” he said in a statement.

Ferguson’s plan was amended onto a measure sponsored by Del. Michele Guyton (D-Baltimore County) that dealt only with the track at the fairgrounds.

She expressed disappointment that her bill was being used as a vehicle in a controversial, ongoing dispute involving other jurisdictions.

“The fairground boasts the only non-profit and Marylander-owned racecourse in the state and hosts over 500,000 people annually,” she said in a statement.

“The House unanimously passed this bill to provide $350,000 of matched funds from the RFRA for five years to repair infrastructure at the Timonium Fairground.”

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