Marylanders accustomed to hearing the owners of Pimlico Race Course grouse grimly about the condition of the historic track and the future of the Preakness probably experienced seasonal confusion over the last couple of weeks. Usually, we hear ownership’s tiresome complaints about Pimlico in May, as the Preakness approaches. But, this year, we’ve been treated to a second round of depressing speculations about the annual stakes race leaving Baltimore.
There are three reasons for that: News this month of a litigious feud between a Canadian billionaire and his daughter over the management of the company that owns Pimlico and its busier, more-pampered sister track, Laurel Park; the company’s perceived desire to move the Preakness to Laurel; and the anticipation of the release of a study on the feasibility of rebuilding Pimlico.
While causing seasonal confusion, this is still a good time to bring up the Preakness and Pimlico. There’s a gubernatorial election upon us, and the next governor — either Republican Larry Hogan or Democrat Ben Jealous — needs to make sure the Preakness stays in Baltimore.
Not just because it’s a sports tradition that dates to the 19th century, or because losing the Preakness would be another horrible blow to the civic ego. But for the sake of creating economic opportunity, developing public spaces for year-round use, redeveloping the impoverished communities to Pimlico’s south and west, and affirming the state’s commitment to a thriving Baltimore. Across the United States, cities define their regions; they provide an identity, a cultural and institutional center. And where cities thrive — safe streets, good jobs, good schools, healthy environments, public transportation, smart and consistent government services — entire metropolitan areas thrive. If they truly care about a sustainable future, political and corporate leaders must recognize this.
While it’s possible for suburban communities to function in isolation from a central city, especially one with a concentration of poverty and numerous social challenges, it would benefit all, including generations unborn, if the central city thrived. That should be the 21st-century ideal, especially for one of the wealthiest states in the nation. No one should be embarrassed to say they are from Baltimore. To this end, metropolitan collaboration — and the city’s collaboration with the state — is essential for the region’s future.
Unfortunately, as governor, Larry Hogan hurt the city at a time when it needed his help the most. He sent the National Guard to help restore order after the Freddie Gray unrest, in April 2015. But, less than two months later, as the city crawled out of that mess, Hogan scrapped the Red Line light rail project that had been 10 years in the making, a transit-oriented economic development opportunity that could have been transformative for the city, especially the west side. Hogan took a pass on nearly $1 billion in federal funds and used the state’s share of the Red Line money to fix roads everywhere but in Baltimore.
The following year, Hogan and the Board of Public Works rejected State Center, a redevelopment project, also transit-oriented, also on the west side, and also about 10 years in the making. The project is stalled, and with Hogan’s aversion to new spending, it’s hard to imagine State Center happening as envisioned any time soon.
Those two projects would have amounted to at least $5 billion in investment in a struggling city.
The governor is not the mayor, but Hogan, with his popularity and no-nonsense business acumen, could have worked in much greater collaboration with the overwhelmed administration on Baltimore’s debilitating crime problem, something that affects the entire region. Hogan had a chance to blaze a new trail for Republicans — right into the heart of a majority minority, majority Democratic city that his party long ago abandoned. That really would have distinguished him from Donald J. Trump and made credible Hogan’s expressed love for Baltimore.
Pimlico, the Preakness and Park Heights present a great opportunity for the next governor, either Hogan or Jealous — a chance to preserve a Maryland tradition while helping a neighborhood that has suffered for decades. An earlier governor, a conservative-leaning Democrat named William Donald Schaefer, managed to get two public sports arenas built. The stadiums where the Orioles and Ravens play were financed by the state and required relatively little investment by the teams. Hogan or Jealous could get something like this done with Pimlico’s owners, and the project could have even greater impact than the stadiums.
Rebuild Pimlico, with a modern clubhouse, offices, restaurants and mixed-income housing, plus public amenities — a running track, bike track, space for concerts, a library branch and after-school programs for kids. Make it a year-round venue, with a month-long racing meet culminating in the Preakness. Work with the city to recruit investment to Park Heights, capitalizing on federal tax breaks already available there. All that’s needed is the political will, and a governor who wants to make a lasting difference in Baltimore and give the region the thriving central city it deserves.