Deus ex machina.
Suddenly, almost out of the blue, a deal appears to be in place that could save and improve Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, ensure that the high-stakes Preakness race remains in the city, revitalize the Park Heights neighborhood surrounding the track, and buff up Laurel Park Racetrack as well.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) and other officials, along with representatives of The Stronach Group, which owns the track, unveiled the deal over the weekend.
“This is an historic moment,” Young said in a statement Saturday.
The announcement offered a lifeline to a struggling neighborhood, two race tracks badly in need of improvements, and the entire Maryland racing industry. It also immediately reordered Baltimore politics and the 2020 Maryland General Assembly session.
Under the plan announced Saturday, The Stronach Group would donate the Pimlico race track and surrounding grounds to the city for development purposes and would lease the track back every year for a two-month period leading up to the Preakness. The city agreed to pay $3.5 million in annual casino revenues it receives for the Pimlico facelift – a relatively modest sum.
The plan envisions a robust, year-round racing season at Laurel Park along with a meet of undetermined duration every year at Pimlico, highlighted by the Preakness, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Several aspects of the deal have to be approved by the General Assembly and the Maryland Stadium Authority.
The legislature will be asked to extend the life of the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account, which the state’s casinos pay into for racetrack improvements across the state. The deal will also require the stadium authority to authorize almost $350 million in bonds for most of the work at the two tracks.
However tidy the deal appears at first glance, several questions remain. Among them:
- How will this “agreement in principle” be finalized?
- Under what terms is Stronach dedicating the Pimlico land to the city of Baltimore? What would be the city’s responsibilities as a landlord?
- Who will operate Pimlico and whatever gets developed at the site? Will a new entity be set up?
- To what extent, if any, will the city, Baltimore Development Corporation or other entities be involved in trying to lure private development to Park Heights? And will that private development be responsive to existing neighbors’ needs?
- What is the reaction of Maryland casinos, which could be on the line for extended payments to keep the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account (RFRA) operating for the 30 years it will take to pay off the bonds?
- How much is in RFRA right now? To what extent does this plan draw down the total amount of money available in the RFRA? And what do other track owners think about this?
- Most of the funds for the $375 million in projects at Pimlico and Laurel would come from $348 million in bonds issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority and repaid by The Stronach Group and other funding sources. Is the Stadium Authority on board? The board of directors meets this week.
- Primary elections in Baltimore City are in late April, just weeks after the end of the General Assembly session in Annapolis. How will high-ranking city officials balance their need to be in Annapolis lobbying for this top priority with their need to be on the campaign trail back home?
- Will this deal be a political boon for Young – and is there political peril for him if it falls apart?
- What does Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who knows a thing or two about real estate, think about this deal? Is he conferring with his campaign chairman, Thomas Kelso – who doubles as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority?
- What’s in it for Alan M. Rifkin – the well-connected attorney for The Stronach Group – and William H. Cole IV, the former head of the Baltimore Development Corp. who handled many of the negotiations on this deal for the city, even though he’s no longer a city employee?
- What does this deal mean for everyone else who will be scrambling for limited state resources in the 2020 legislative session and beyond — particularly those advocating for expensive education reforms recommended by the Kirwan Commission?