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'Supertrack' plan not super to all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Annapolis, they were talking about a "supertrack" for downtown Baltimore, a fanciful new complex for Maryland's racing industry stocked with thousands of slot machines.

But Leola Haywood has no doubt she would vote against it -- because she has no desire to give up where she has lived her entire 88 years. Her house on Bayard Street would be one of about 170 that could be demolished to make way for the track just west of the city's professional sports stadiums.

"I've been in this house all my life," Haywood said. "I wouldn't know where to go."

A plan to give Baltimore two racetracks with slot machines -- the legendary Pimlico Race Course and a new downtown track -- worries local residents and elected officials, intrigues a leading business group and has Old Hilltop's owner saying a new city track will never fly.

The plan emerged this week in discussions among state leaders interested in holding a special session of the General Assembly to place the question of legalizing slots before voters in November.

Though the possibility of a special session appeared to evaporate last night, it's clear that Annapolis lawmakers will continue talking about a new track proposed near Baltimore's two stadiums.

The Maryland Stadium Authority's preliminary plan calls for a $400 million racetrack encompassing 185 to 210 acres.

Betty Bland-Thomas, president of Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee Inc., said the new racetrack would destroy affordable homes and historical buildings.

"I think we've suffered enough" with the two stadiums, she said.

Haywood added that her neighborhood of Washington Village-Pigtown already deals with the vehicle and pedestrian traffic accompanying events at the stadiums. The possibility of a year-round horse racing and slots facility would increase the burden on her struggling community, she said.

"I'd hate to see it," she said, adding, "the big wheels are going to get what they want. They don't think about poor people."

Her neighbor, William "Mayor Bus" Chambers, said the residents who would be displaced by a track would be people who have known one another for generations.

"Everybody around here are relatives or close friends," Chambers said. "It would be hard to build that community somewhere else."

At a Washington Village-Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council meeting June 30, 70 percent of the 300 who attended voted against the idea.

Shawn McIntosh, executive director of the neighborhood council, said state plans showed that more than 170 people would have to move, and approximately 30 companies would be displaced. "This is an urban area that is already struggling," McIntosh said.

The group has plenty of support from city leaders, who question whether the "supertrack" -- floated last year by the stadium authority -- is even feasible because it could spell the end of Pimlico.

"Pimlico would die," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. She said a racetrack with slot machines near downtown would only add to the social ills afflicting struggling city neighborhoods and that Northwest Baltimore would suffer if Pimlico were to close.

"We don't need any additional vices for the city," Dixon said. "We have too many other vices that we're trying to cure in the city."

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said Washington Village-Pigtown is making strides that slots at a new racetrack would derail. "I'd hate to see that progress come to a complete halt," he said.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a business advocacy group, said a facility proposed by the Stadium Authority would be an economic boon to the neighborhood.

"It provides a tremendous opportunity for tax base development and economic development for the entire area," said Donald C. Fry, president of the group.

Carl A.J. Wright, the stadium authority's chairman, said state leaders named the site as part of their discussions for a referendum on slots because "it's the one place that nobody seems to have objections to."

"More recently there's been some community" objections, Wright said, though he emphasizes the plan remains preliminary.

In early discussions, McIntosh said, the Stadium Authority provided her group with a footprint placing the facility between Washington Boulevard and Ridgely, Ostend and Monroe streets.

"It's three times the size of Oriole Park and Ravens stadium combined," McIntosh said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he was surprised that lawmakers would consider a new plan for slots at two Baltimore sites.

"There's a number of questions that have to be resolved for any location in the city," O'Malley said. "The cost for transportation infrastructure, the increased operational costs, increased dollars for gambling addiction treatment, impact fees."

"I think slots is a lousy way for a state as wealthy as ours to fund something as important as schools," O'Malley said.

Councilman Robert W. Curran said the supertrack would make sense if the owners of Pimlico, Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp. and the family of Joseph A. De Francis, could manage it. "The Preakness could move there," Curran said.

Curran predicted that if slots are not approved, Magna and De Francis may move the Preakness out of Baltimore.

"If we don't get slots, the Preakness -- in a year or two -- will be sayonara, and we'll only have ourselves to blame," Curran said.

De Francis called the idea of a supertrack with slots "problematic." He said his company is committed to Pimlico, the second oldest racetrack in North America.

"The history and tradition that surround that facility and that site location are truly priceless," De Francis said. "It is something that is irreplaceable at another location."

He also said that building the supertrack would take years, during which Magna would be improving Pimlico and equipping it with slots facilities.

"It's an intriguing concept when you hear it spoken of conceptually, but when you start to drill down into the practical realities associated with that, I'm very skeptical that it can be accomplished in my lifetime -- and I'm still a relatively young guy," De Francis said.

Aaron Meisner, who lives near Pimlico and is coordinating chairman of the anti-slots group stopslotsmaryland.com, opposes slots at either location.

"It's not fair that the city should be the beneficiary of two of these predators, and the county should not enjoy the traffic and the addiction and the crime that goes along with this," Meisner said.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents the Pimlico area, said she is not concerned about the implications of a supertrack and permitting slots at both facilities until state legislators actually agree on a plan.

That is something they've been unable to do during the past two legislative sessions with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- and it appears they failed to reach a deal again this week.

"We've already had two sessions that went nowhere," Spector said. "I hope and pray we don't have another 90 days of nothing."

Sun staff writers Ed Waldman and Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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