Time for Preakness to move on — and out

Nostalgia is fun and usually harmless — except when it leads to hundreds of millions of misspent dollars and handicaps the development of an impoverished neighborhood.

Unfortunately, that seems to be where we are headed with Pimlico Race Course, home to the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. Everybody loves the Preakness. Everybody seems convinced it must stay at “Old Hilltop,” not only to preserve tradition but to serve as a key cog in Baltimore’s economy.

Of course, lots of folks also used to think that Memorial Stadium was an irreplaceable shrine or that it would’ve been wonderful for interstates to slash through Fells Point and across the Inner Harbor. Luckily, William Donald Schaefer and Barbara Mikulski made careers out of resisting such groupthink, and Baltimore is much the better for it. We need similar leadership on Pimlico.

Let’s start with the obvious: In a city where schoolchildren shiver because we can’t afford furnace upgrades or sweat because there’s no money for AC, where crumbling streets go unpaved, traffic crawls because we can’t afford timed stoplights, and the rest of our under-funded needs could fill this page, we are seriously considering spending upwards of $300 million on a racetrack?!? We really want to squander a huge chunk of precious capital on a facility that will make money one day a year?

To which the groupthinkers will sputter that that one day is enough — that it puts the city on a world stage, showcasing us in a way that is priceless. And to which the more rational should respond “just like the Grand Prix of Baltimore, you mean?” For the truth is, spectacles do not have nearly the impact their devotees claim for them. Cities are great — or not — because of their economic fundamentals, not whether they can throw a good weekend party.

And that is the less obvious, but more important, problem with wasting resources on this track: It actually hurts rather than helps the local economy. We have it backward: The neighborhood surrounding Pimlico is not decaying and poor in spite of the track, but at least partly because of it.

The foremost problem the racetrack causes for the Pimlico district was first identified by urbanologist Jane Jacobs in her classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She dubbed it “the curse of border vacuums.”

Ms. Jacobs saw that big-footprint installations — not just expressways and railroad tracks, but sprawling convention centers, large hospital grounds and sometimes even excessively large parks — create dead ends for pedestrians and drivers, often leading to stagnation in adjoining areas. And stagnation then gives way to blight and flight. As she put it: A “running-down process is set in motion.”

If you doubt Ms. Jacobs’s wisdom on this, imagine: What if someone planned to drop a 93-acre racetrack into your neighborhood? A massive grandstand, a huge oval, plenty of asphalt for parking and fences all around to keep out the non-paying onlookers.

My guess is that you would call Barbara Mikulski out of retirement to rally the troops the same way she did to head off the interstate in Fells Point; you’d fight tooth and nail to keep this new pestilence away. You would know, as Ms. Jacobs did, that it would not stimulate your neighborhood’s economy, but kill it.

The fact that this particular racetrack is already in place does not change this logic. Nor do claims that an upgrade would be done with an eye on “mixed uses” — a little residential on the fringe, an occasional event on the infield. None of that would change the fact that a project with a footprint and border of this size is simply incompatible with a successful, prosperous neighboring district.

So when the Maryland Jockey Club points to Laurel Park as the next home for the Preakness, it’s time we stop shouting “never!” and start saying “about time.”

Economic impact-wise, tourists will still come to town and stay in our downtown hotels (there are none to speak of in Pimlico anyway) during Preakness Week. And if we run enough MARC trains to Laurel from Camden station on race day, they’ll likely find the experience easier and more enjoyable.

More importantly, the 93 acres now inhabited by an economic albatross on that hilltop could be re-tasked into multiple uses that would truly contribute to the wellbeing of the good people of Pimlico. They deserve no less.

Stephen J.K. Walters is a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland and a research fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His email is swalters@loyola.edu.

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