City officials push to keep Preakness in Baltimore — and at Pimlico

As Baltimore officials push to keep the Preakness Stakes in the city, they say they won't abandon the longtime site of the marquee race in Park Heights in favor of another city location.

The Stronach Group, the Ontario-based owner of the 147-year-old Pimlico Race Course — the race's home — has expressed concern about the condition not only of the Northwest Baltimore venue but of the surrounding neighborhood. The rate of violent crime in Park Heights is 14 percent higher than in the city as a whole. A man was killed Monday just blocks from the track.

But Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said they are committed to Park Heights and Pimlico. Others said finding another location would be problematic because there are so few undeveloped city parcels large enough to accommodate a track.

"Pimlico offers a lot of possibility," Pugh said. "I'm old enough to remember Pimlico race track when the big restaurant was there and everybody went there. Retail was more robust. I just think it's a great community to invest in."

Young would consider any discussion of a new site for the Triple Crown race to be a "non-starter," spokesman Lester Davis said.

"He's very clear and unequivocal," Davis said. "That location and facility is critical to the resurgence of the Park Heights community. Downtown is doing great and doesn't need a race track, but the Park Heights community would really flourish with a world-class track."

Stronach has said that Pimlico needs to be completely rebuilt at a cost of $300 million to $500 million and that it won't make the investment without substantial public assistance. Even then, it said, it might not make sense to invest in the worn track, which stages just 12 racing days a year. It could instead move the Preakness to the track it owns in Laurel, which it has been upgrading.

Laurel Park, which runs 150 racing days, is located midway between Baltimore and Washington.

But Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of Stronach's racing division, said the company has not given up on "any options" for Pimlico.

Asked whether an alternative city location could be considered, Ritvo replied in a text message: "We are open to discuss anything. We are truly dedicated to make the Preakness a major premier destination."

William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., noted that "over the years others have contemplated a relocated Pimlico."

"For me," he said, "the ideal location is where it exists today."

He said the track could anchor Park Heights' redevelopment.

The "location itself is not challenging, in that it is currently situated right off Interstate 83," he said. "It's not like it's far off the beaten path."

Then there is the issue of the area needed for a track. Pimlico Race Course and its surrounding land takes up more than 125 acres.

"When you're looking at a massive facility like this, it's going to be very hard to find a suitable location," Cole said.

Around the city, only Clifton Park and Port Covington might offer sufficient space for a track with grandstands, stables and parking.

But Clifton Park is already home to a municipal golf course and the developer of Port Covington said there's no plan for a track at the South Baltimore riverfront site.

"A track is not being considered for Port Covington," said John Maroon, a spokesman for Sagamore Development, the real estate firm behind Port Covington that is owned by Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank. A track, Maroon said, is "not in the plan and not under consideration."

The $5.5 billion mixed-use project is to include a new headquarters for Under Armour, other offices, housing, restaurants, shops, parks and athletic fields. Plank's Sagamore Spirit whiskey distillery recently opened there.

Plank is keenly interested in horse racing and owns Sagamore Farm, a breeding and training facility in Baltimore County once owned by the Vanderbilts. He has said he one day hopes to field a Triple Crown contender.

Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries, the umbrella company for Plank's private interests, including horse racing, real estate development, investing and distilling, said it is "not involved in any ideas or conversations about a new racetrack."

"We believe that Preakness is an important positive event in Baltimore City every year, both in terms of economic impact and national exposure," Geddes said, "and very much hope that the race will stay in Baltimore permanently."

Doug Mayer, Gov. Larry Hogan's spokesman, reiterated the governor's desire to keep the race in Baltimore, but declined to address the hypothetical of another race track.

"Governor Hogan has made it clear that he wants to see the Preakness stay in Baltimore," Mayer said in an email. "The next phase of the Maryland Stadium Authority study will soon be underway, and the governor looks forward to seeing the results."

The stadium authority completed a study in February that said it would cost $250 million to $320 million to renovate Pimlico. While officials still are determining the scope of the study's second phase, it could examine the cost of a complete rebuild.

To spur redevelopment, Pugh has floated the idea of establishing a tax increment financing zone for Park Heights. The city would sell bonds to fund infrastructure for development in the area.

She said she wants to see events at the race course year-round.

"There's nowhere else in the city where 1,000 people can come to and park for free, whether it's a catering evening, a wedding, a reunion or whatever," Pugh said. "This offers a great opportunity to look at what that investment should look like.

"I do think fixing up Pimlico will generate more interest for the Park Heights community and the Reisterstown Road corridor."

Pimlico is bordered by Park Heights, Mount Washington, Glen, and Sinai Hospital.

Park Heights contains more than 2,000 vacant lots and buildings, the stadium authority reported in its initial study of the track.

While Stronach officials note that it's a high-crime area, the authority said there have been "very few reported incidents affecting Preakness attendees."

The Preakness reported record attendance of 135,256 in 2016, and generates more than $30 million each year.

"The scenario that would really be interesting would be the redevelopment of Park Heights because that has to happen anyways," said economist Anirban Basu, CEO of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group. "The issue is lack of capital."

While Stronach has said it won't foot the bill to rebuild Pimlico, Ritvo said the company is willing to explore a public-private partnership. It's too soon to tell how much appetite the state might have to help. State officials from the governor's office to the General Assembly have indicated a willingness to talk with Stronach.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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