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High stakes at Laurel: As officials ponder Pimlico's future, Stronach focuses on Laurel Park's racing role

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Officials in Annapolis are wrestling with a proposal by the owner of Maryland’s two largest horse racing tracks to turn Laurel Park into a “super track” capable of hosting some of racing’s largest events — perhaps even the coveted Preakness Stakes.

While Baltimore political and business leaders are pushing for a major rebuilding of Pimlico, The Stronach Group, owners of both tracks as well as Rosecroft Raceway and a training center in Bowie, is supporting legislation in Annapolis that would use state slot machine revenue to help pay for track improvements at Laurel.

While Laurel Park Race Course is situated in Anne Arundel County, its proximity to Howard County and the City of Laurel off Route 1 have always driven interest from all three jurisdictions.

The Preakness, the second of horse racing’s Triple Crown, has an economic impact that’s been estimated in various studies at more $30 million annually. But even if the Preakness never runs in Laurel, some officials say turning the track into a premiere racing venue would certainly bring a regional economic impact.

“I think it’s going to affect everyone around that area, Anne Arundel County, Howard County and the City of Laurel,” said Robert Love, Laurel’s deputy director of economic and community development.

“You’re going to be feeling that miles and miles away,” he said.

Last week Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said he supports the Stronach Group’s plan for $80 million in improvements to Laurel Park.

“For the horse racing industry to survive, it needs a racetrack that is running year-round,” Pittman said.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball declined to offer an opinion on the potential impact in the county of turning Laurel Park into a super track.

Ball, who served as a County Council member before becoming county executive in December, said as a councilman he saw proposals for Laurel Park evolve over several iterations — including one point when there was a request to consider a special taxing district.

"I had concerns at that time because we did not have a lot of detail and frankly, we still don’t have a lot of detail,” Ball said. He said he did not want to comment further until he “sees what their real ask is.”

Stronach has said it wants to put $80 million — half from video lottery proceeds, half from its own coffers — into Laurel. They also want to re-open the Bowie Training Center at a cost of $40 million, also split between their own funds and video lottery proceeds.

In December, a study managed by the Maryland Stadium Authority developed concepts of rebuilding Pimlico at a cost of $424 million, but Stronach told state leaders they that kind of public investment in Pimlico is unlikely.

Del. Mark Chang, a Democrat from Glen Burnie, is sponsoring the House bill that would provide the funding mechanisms for the investment Stronach wants to make at Laurel. Howard County State Sen. Guy Guzzone, also a Democrat, is a co-sponsor of a similar measure crossfiled in the Senate.

Chang said he supports expanding growth near the Laurel racetrack, and has also sponsored legislation that would expand alcohol licenses at the track. He hopes that bill would attract finer dining and more interest in the area.

“Whatever we can do to help revitalize that park would be really good for the community and state in general,” Chang said. “It has got a lot of potential over there.”

Love noted that in Laurel, the back entrance to the race track is “roughly a mile from city limits.” He said the entire city would feel the impact of expanded operations, with a potential need for more ancillary business such as hotels and restaurants.

Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, did not response to requests for comment for this article. Laurel Mayor Craig Moe also did not respond to requests for comment.

Stronach officials have said they would like to lure The Breeders Cup, another marquee racing event, to Laurel.

Last May, asked if the company would like to eventually see The Preakness at Laurel, Stronach Chief Operating Officer Tim Ritvo said: “Obviously from what I know now, yes. What I know with the train station coming through your property from Baltimore to Washington, it’s hard to beat that. Great grass course, great dirt track, I know the renovations we’ve done there.”

Chang wouldn’t take a position on the Preakness being held at the Laurel racetrack. He did say he supports other races being held at the track.

Pittman also said the Preakness is a separate question. He said he thinks there is enough driving economic development in Laurel that the project shouldn’t be contingent on one of horse racing’s top three events moving south.

“I also understand where the mayor of Baltimore is coming from,” he said. “Park Heights, where Pimlico is, needs redevelopment as well.”

Stronach has made no secret of its desire to invest in Laurel over Pimlico. Over the past five years the company has spent almost 90 percent of its state renovation subsidies to pay for improvements at Laurel Park rather that at Pimlico, state records show.

Since 2013, The Stronach Group has received $22.5 million from Maryland’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal program. The company matched the subsidy, as required by law, using the program to pay for a total of $45 million in renovations.

Of that, $39 million went to Laurel Park, while $6 million was spent at Pimlico.

Improvements at Laurel Park have include building two 150-stall barns on the backstretch, replacing old televisions with 850 flat screens, upgrading the clubhouse area and adding new bars and concession stands. At Pimlico, its allocation paid for Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and electrical improvements.

City and state officials say the disparity helps to explain the dilapidated condition of the 149-year-old Pimlico, but Stronach says it more reflects the reality that Laurel has a stronger upside and the number of racing days held at each track: 157 at Laurel, 12 at Pimlico.

“We have never tried to tank [Pimlico],” said Ritvo. “We have a business choice to determine where best to invest our dollars.”

Still, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has expressed frustration with Stronach’s lack of attention to Pimlico. In letters this month to Gov. Larry Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, she wrote that Stronach has “allowed Pimlico to deteriorate even when they had state money to maintain and improve it.”

Pugh reiterated her position Monday, asking lawmakers to reject the Stronach-supported legislation.

Meanwhile, Baltimore lawmakers have introduced legislation to require Stronach officials to work with the city and state to move forward on the redevelopment proposal of Pimlico drawn up by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The stadium authority concept envisions a multi-use development at Pimlico — including the racetrack but also other entertainment options, shops and homes.

The legislation would bring the parties together in a work group "to study and make recommendations regarding financing options" for rebuilding Pimlico.

Hearings on the bills related to the issue are scheduled for Friday in the House, and five days later in the Senate.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Erin Logan and Jess Nocera and Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.

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