In Park Heights, a struggle to save a neighborhood — and a horse race

The weeds, rot and decay overtook the 2600 block of Rosewood Ave., not far from Pimlico Race Course, long ago.

Days from now, wealth and energy will pour into this neighborhood for the Preakness, the state's largest sporting event.

Then, when the horse race is over, it will promptly leave.

Cheo D. Hurley stands here now, looking at a block of vacant rowhouses. He'll be here next week to welcome the bow-tied fans, and he'll be here when they depart. This block is the next step in his plan to remake one of Baltimore's long-struggling communities.

Soon, a developer working with Hurley's organization will invest $16 million here to build new affordable housing — and there are more ambitious plans nearby.

Hurley, director of the nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance, has been charged by the city with revitalizing Park Heights, a once-thriving community that has lost population for decades.

More than 40 percent of working-age residents in southern Park Heights aren't working. More than half of the children in the predominantly black neighborhood live below the poverty line.

"These are 50-plus years worth of problems we're trying to tackle here," Hurley says. "Laws that have been in place that have allowed this to happen. Policing tactics that have allowed these things to happen. Education tactics that have allowed these things to happen.

"You're not going to turn it around overnight."

But there's growing pressure to do just that. The fates of the neighborhood and the horse track at its center are closely connected — and the Stronach Group, the Aurora, Ontario-based owner of Pimlico Race Course, has been open about its desire to shift resources away from the track that hosts the middle jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown to the track Stronach owns in Laurel.

The 147-year-old Pimlico Race Course first held the Preakness in 1873, and has hosted the race every year since 1909.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of Stronach's racing division, says the company now runs 150 days of racing at Laurel Park, but just 12 in Baltimore, during the two weeks around the Preakness.

A race track that operated year-round could provide steady work for the people of Park Heights, Hurley says. The Preakness attracts more than 130,000 people, who spend tens of millions of dollars.

But that's not the direction in which the Stronach Group is moving.

"We're going to continue to invest heavily in Laurel," Ritvo says. "Laurel is a much better place to have a year-round facility."

State law requires the organizers of the Preakness to hold the race in Baltimore, unless there's an emergency. But Ritvo says crime and blight are keeping the track in Pimlico from greater success.

"We have more murders around Pimlico than a place like Laurel," he says. "We had a security guy, 22 years old, get shot in the parking lot. It's heartbreaking."

Security guard Kevin Jones was fatally shot in June 2015.

"When we run the Preakness here," Ritvo says, "we try to get everybody out before it gets too dark."

He says Howard County has pushed for improvements around the Laurel track. Howard officials have approved plans for a major transit-oriented development that can deliver race fans. He hasn't seen the same energy around Pimlico.

"The Kentucky Derby makes nine times what we make on the Preakness," he says. "It's been invested in."

The Maryland Stadium Authority this year estimated the cost of the work needed to keep the Preakness at Pimlico at $250 million to $320 million. A study released by the authority in February included plans for renovations to the track's clubhouse and grandstand and a tree-lined pedestrian promenade.

The city's Park Heights Master Plan, meanwhile, proposes a commercial center attached to the race course.

City Councilman Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, who represents the area near Pimlico, says a race track renovation plus connected businesses could help spur economic growth in the neighborhood.

Schleifer says the Stronach Group is standing in the way of progress.

"If we found a partner to rebuild that facility, you would see private investment come in on every corner," he says. "These guys are holding Park Heights hostage."

Ritvo says Stronach is willing to shift resources and events back to Pimlico if it sees a large investment in the area from the city and state.

"I believe in rebuilding the race course with a longer commitment around what's going to happen around the track," he says. "It can't be just talk. It has to be hundreds of millions. ...

"If you could have night events and shopping and a place where people can walk, eat and drink, that could be a success. But that has to come with city infrastructure and a real commitment."

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who took office in December, says neighborhoods such as Park Heights have been allowed to languish, while city officials targeted tax breaks and special deals to spur development around the waterfront.

"We are going to target Park Heights," Pugh says. "As great and wonderful as the harbor is, so is Poppleton, so is Park Heights, so is Midtown, so is East Baltimore.

"Can you imagine 50 or 100 families working together to change a neighborhood? We can do that. We can do that in Park Heights."

Under state law, the one-mile area around Pimlico Race Course receives a dedicated stream of funds from casino gambling. As more casinos have opened in the state and revenues increased, the neighborhood is receiving increased funds.

Pugh increased the percentage of the city's casino revenue that goes to Park Heights from 75 percent to 85 percent. That means Hurley has $7.4 million to invest in the next fiscal year at the direction of the mayor and the Pimlico Community Development Authority.

Pugh has floated the idea of issuing a tax increment financing deal for the neighborhood. The city would sell bonds to investors to fund infrastructure for development in the area, as it has at Harbor Point and Port Covington.

She envisions big change for the neighborhood: a fresh-food market to rival Lexington Market, a village for seniors, sit-down restaurants, cafes and a movie theater.

"We've been talking about the potential for a TIF for a while," Hurley says. He notes that the area has at least 13 more years of casino funding coming.

"How do you leverage the 13 years of slots funding, so that you can increase the amount of money you can develop with?" he asks. "Whatever you do has to be radical change."

Selena Hinson, 48, has lived in the Park Heights area most of her life. She helps run the popular Baltimore Entertainers marching band, which performs with as many as 150 kids.

Hinson says she's encouraged by the mayor's statements. Rehabbing vacant buildings into affordable housing, creating jobs and cutting down on crime would help the neighborhood thrive, she says. But she's heard promises from politicians before.

"I love the Park Heights area," she says. "But the roads are bad and the housing is dilapidated. Finally they're putting more into the communities instead of the tourist attractions. It's needed, and it would help folks take more pride in where they live.

"That would be great if it actually happens."

Hurley currently uses the state money to help with development in the area, such as a new building for low-income seniors and the purchase of vacant homes for future demolitions.

The organization also helps fund educational services for neighborhood students, a 10-member team to clean up the neighborhood, and a branch of the anti-violence Safe Streets program, in which ex-offenders intervene in disputes to prevent violence.

As Hurley travels around the neighborhood with Tony Bridges, his director of operations, the men point out problems that need to be addressed: high weeds on several city-owned lots, illegal dumping at several sites.

Both men know the city's problems intimately.

"Growing up here in the '90s, we were crack-era kids," Hurley says. "A lot of friends died. A lot of friends went to jail."

Hurley grew up not far from here. He earned degrees in finance at Howard University, public administration at American University and real estate at the Johns Hopkins University.

"I was lucky," he says. "I had people steer me toward educational opportunities. I want to help guys who look like me and their families. If not for a couple lucky breaks, I'm a statistic — no doubt."

They point out some signs of progress: a new playground, a renovated recreation center, a school undergoing a major rehabilitation.

But there are also challenges: A plan to revitalize a 60-acre plot of land in the center of Park Heights, replacing 600 vacant properties, has stalled while the city tries to find a developer. City officials say the firms that applied for the job last year lacked the experience and finances to handle it.

Hurley says the area has far too many liquor stores.

"You cannot have 47 liquor stores here," he says. "It's unconscionable that could happen. It's ridiculous. I don't understand how that's allowable. It's only allowable in neighborhoods like this. It's not allowable in Homeland or Roland Park. It would never happen."

At Rosewood Avenue, the men detail their plans to replace dozens of vacant properties with a $16 million affordable-housing development called Renaissance Row. It will stand near a new senior housing complex, Renaissance Gardens, that their agency helped build.

Mary Campbell, 70, who lives nearby, says the men are on the right track. The vacants prevent progress, she says, and she's glad they're being torn down.

The main impediment to the neighborhood's success, she says, is drug dealing.

"We need a lot of people to speak up and demand better," she says.

Hurley says it's often hard to see the progress in Park Heights because the area is so large and has so many problems. He cautions that development alone cannot fix the neighborhood.

"No one building is going to fix Park Heights," he says. "It's got to be a comprehensive strategy. There's got to be a crime strategy, a retail strategy, a comprehensive housing strategy, a comprehensive education strategy, a comprehensive jobs initiative. All these things have to happen."

Losing the Preakness would be a huge blow to the neighborhood's rebirth, he says.

"If you had the Super Bowl in your backyard every year, you would never let it go," Hurley says. "I don't understand how anybody could be OK with it going to Laurel."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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