How to keep Preakness at Pimlico

Saturday’s race won’t be the last time the Preakness Stakes is run at Pimlico, but it could be the second to last unless Maryland’s leaders get their acts together on a plan to preserve an irreplacable part of Baltimore’s history and culture, not to mention a major economic driver for a community that desperately needs it. The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, has committed to keep the race there at least through next year, but unless something happens, there’s every indication that they will try to move it to their other Maryland track, Laurel Race Course, in 2020. If the millions the Stronach Group has invested in spiffing up Laurel in recent years aren’t indication enough, company officials’ talk of the importance of keeping Preakness in Maryland — no mention of Baltimore — should serve as the writing on the wall. Maryland law prohibits the track’s owners from moving the Preakness anywhere else in the state absent a disaster or emergency, but it’s altogether possible that the Stronach Group will be asking the General Assembly to change that as early as next year.

There is a way forward for Pimlico, but it’s daunting. A study managed by the Maryland Stadium Authority and jointly funded by the city, the state and the racing industry found that Pimlico is capable of hosting a world-class event on par with the Kentucky Derby — but not without a complete overhaul, which it estimated at $300 million. The Stronach Group has said they believe nothing short of tearing Pimlico down and rebuilding from scratch would suffice, and that might mean an even higher price tag. Given that the Stronach Group has consolidated virtually all non-Preakness Maryland thoroughbred racing at Laurel, a much more modern facility conveniently located between Baltimore and Washington, there is little economic case to be made for Pimlico’s owners to invest that much on their own.

But they’re not on their own. The horse racing industry already benefits from a massive public subsidy in the form of race track facility renewal funds and horse racing purse subsidies, courtesy of the legislation that legalized casino gambling in Maryland. So far this year, that has amounted to nearly $60 million. The stability of Maryland’s horse racing industry owes a great deal to those public investments, and they give the state the right to dig in its heels in support of Pimlico.

The public policy case for that isn’t mere sentiment. The Maryland Department of Commerce estimated that the 2017 Preakness generated more than $14 million in economic activity, supporting the equivalent of 510 full-time jobs. The race provides an opportunity for positive national exposure for Baltimore (something that’s in short supply these days), and it serves as an annual boost to a neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty. Moreover, there’s the question of what would happen to the Pimlico site if the racecourse disappeared. The Park Heights community is already struggling with disinvestment and abandoned properties, and the last thing it needs is a massive black hole in its midst. Mayor Catherine Pugh today announced a revitalization plan for the community, including investments in infrastructure and key public-private partnerships. But the abandonment of Pimlico would offset any efforts the city could make.

We expect and accept that taxpayers would fund part of the renovation or reconstruction of Pimlico, beyond the existing racing subsidies, and a second phase of the stadium authority study, due to be released before the next legislative session, should provide a sense of what that might entail. But what’s most crucial is that the study will also look at ways to make the racetrack site a vibrant center of activity more than a couple of days a year. To justify additional public investment, the plan needs to yield additional public benefit, whether that’s in the form of tax revenue or public amenities. Several concepts for that are already being considered, including building offices and retail into the Pimlico complex and making the site more attractive for concert and event promoters. A particularly intriguing idea is converting the massive infield into sports fields, which are in short supply and would regularly bring families from across the region to the neighborhood.

Gov. Larry Hogan has joined Mayor Pugh in expressing his desire to keep Preakness in Baltimore, and we hope whoever challenges him in November’s election will do the same. The next governor and General Assembly need to be ready to make the race’s future a top item on the 2019 agenda. We have leverage to keep the race in Baltimore. We have resources to make it viable. We will soon have a plan for how it can be done. We just need to muster the political will to follow through, and fast. The longer we wait, the more difficult Pimlico will be to save.

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