For years, residents near Pimlico Race Course have set up shop on their sidewalks, selling food and drinks, parking spaces and even access to their bathrooms to the tens of thousands of Preakness goers who descend on their community every spring.
The one-day influx of free-spending visitors, though, hardly makes an economic dent in those impoverished neighborhoods, where the result of decades of neglect stand in stark contrast to the frothy excesses of the Preakness.
But a new plan to transform the aging track, and keep the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown there, promises to also lift Park Heights and other neighboring residential areas. The plan, reported by The Baltimore Sun on Saturday, would turn the track into more of a year-round events facility and offer 50 acres of land to private developers to build new housing, commercial buildings and other amenities.
“This is a unique opportunity to accelerate the redevelopment and revitalization of Park Heights in a very meaningful way, and using this project, Pimlico, as a catalyst for that revitalization," said William H. Cole IV, until recently the head of the Baltimore Development Corp. and among the group that negotiated a plan to improve Pimlico and keep the Preakness in town.
The plan was developed to resolve a long and bitter fight over the future of Preakness, which the Stronach Group wanted to move to its other, newer racetrack in Maryland, Laurel Park, as the 149-year-old Pimlico deteriorated from age and neglect. It was negotiated by representatives of three parties with at times wildly conflicting interests: Cole, for the city; Alan M. Rifkin, for the Maryland Jockey Club and the Stronach Group that owns Pimlico; and Alan M. Foreman, for the state’s thoroughbred industry.
"The fight was worth it,” said Park Heights community leader George Mitchell, who led the “Save the Preakness” campaign during this year’s General Assembly session.
The thought of Baltimore losing Pimlico, Mitchell said, was "like saying we’re going to take the Kentucky Derby out of Kentucky.“
He believes the plan could help “rebuild” the Park Heights area. As president of the Park Heights Chamber of Commerce, he said he was looking forward to talking about the plans at an upcoming social mixer sponsored by the chamber.
“I’m elated,” he said.
The negotiators’ vision is to turn Pimlico into more of an events facility with fewer fixed structures and more flexible spaces that could be customized and reconfigured for different kinds of gatherings. Meanwhile, horse training facilities would be consolidated at Laurel Park.
The plan calls for rotating the Pimlico track about 30 degrees, which, along with moving training facilities to Laurel, provides about 50 acres of land to be sold for private development.
“We’ve looked at hotels. We’ve looked at things like grocery stores. We’ve looked at office buildings and residential buildings,” Cole said.
Underlying the plan was a need to find ways the community could use Pimlico in between race days, which have dwindled over the years, and spur development that could revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods.
The infield could be used as multi-purpose athletic fields, for example, while book fairs and farmers and flea markets could set up shop when newly constructed stables were not housing racehorses.
Willard Dixon, president of the Park Heights Community Council, expressed skepticism about whether the plan would benefit the people who live near Pimlico.
Currently, “there’s not a lot of economic activity that’s generated that benefits the immediate area around the racetrack," he said. “I don’t know how additional festivals or carnivals or other types of events are going to serve this community.”
Dixon said leaders need to pay more attention to neighborhood concerns.
“There’s a serious drug problem up here, for one, that the city has failed to address, along with the abandoned and vacant housing,” Dixon said.
He also questioned who would profit from the private development.
“A very large percentage of the people up here are African American,” he said. “There’s not enough black-owned businesses being promoted in this area.”
The proposal comes as the area is poised to undergo much-needed redevelopment. Several years ago, Sinai Hospital, located just east of the racetrack, purchased 20 acres of Pimlico’s land that it had been using for employee parking as well as two smaller parcels. The hospital plans a new $120 million outpatient center to help patients better manage chronic health conditions.
And just last month, the city announced that a nonprofit company, NHP Foundation, would lead a more than $100 million redevelopment project to build new housing, a park and other amenities on 17 acres just south of Pimlico.
“You could have quite literally hundreds of millions of dollars [in redevelopment] happening in that community simultaneously,” Cole said. “I don’t know anything else that will change the trajectory of a community faster than having this type of capital investment, much of it private, happening simultaneously.”
Cole called the parcels available for development very attractive “once you’ve invested in this project and committed to the long-term future of the Preakness." He noted that Baltimore had been in the news recently after President Donald Trump had called it rat infested as part of an attack on Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings and his district.
“I can’t imagine that people from around the region and around the country wouldn’t look at this ... particularly given some of the comments that have been made about Baltimore and the 7th congressional district. This is right in the heart of this.”
State senators and delegates who represent districts in the area heralded the proposal to revitalize Pimlico — and its neighboring communities. As part of the deal, Park Heights would get funding for a long-planned new library.
“It’s a win for the community,” Sen. Antonio Hayes said. “Park Heights is set to rebound back to its old glory.”
Hayes said he believed there’s a good chance the General Assembly would pass the legislation necessary to make the deal a reality.
“We have to look at it as a community development opportunity," he said. "That’s a better narrative that we can get people in the legislature behind.”
Other state legislators also applauded the deal. Sen. Jill P. Carter and Dels. Sandy Rosenberg, Dalya Attar and Tony Bridges issued a joint statement calling it a victory for Park Heights and the entire city.
“In addition to preserving the Preakness in Baltimore, this redevelopment will provide countless opportunities for the community," they said. "It has been a long hard fight, and we are extremely grateful to have achieved this result for the benefit of our community.”
Martha D. Nathanson, vice president of government relations and community development for LifeBridge Health, which operates Sinai, called the new proposal “quite thrilling.”
Sinai was not involved in negotiating the plan but has for years advocated for retaining Preakness because of its potential to spur other investment in the community and improve the health of residents.
“We want an active, attractive neighbor with year-round activity,” Nathanson said.
“This plan will ensure that,” she said. “It will help anchor redevelopment of the entire Northwest section of the city. The uncertainty of Preakness staying was putting the brakes on anything happening. With that resolved, the redevelopment of the track will spur redevelopment of the neighborhood and draw interest from around the region.”
Dixon, the Park Heights Community Council president, said he isn’t so sure about all the promises.
“I’m just suspicious,” he said.
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Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Alison Knezevich and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.