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Maryland Stadium Authority proposal for new Pimlico leaves open question of how to pay for rebuild

After dismissing two less ambitious options, the Maryland Stadium Authority on Thursday proposed replacing the faded Pimlico Race Course with a stylish — and costly — track designed to open its amenities to the surrounding community year-round and encourage development in a distressed area of Baltimore.

The plan for the 148-year-old home of the Preakness Stakes, Maryland’s largest and splashiest sporting event, includes a four-level clubhouse and plaza area called the Palio — named after the Palio di Siena horse race in Italy — and a new track and infield positioned to open the site further to the public.

The three-year proposal was endorsed by Mayor Catherine Pugh and would achieve city officials’ objectives of keeping the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown in Baltimore, making the 110-acre campus accessible during non-racing days and potentially transforming the nearby neighborhoods.

In the city’s vision for the track, the plaza would be built “to serve as a scenic saddling area during Preakness Week and to serve the community the rest of the year with public concerts, performing arts, festivals and open-air markets,” said a mayor’s office release. It said a clubhouse would stage social and civic events, after-school and summer programs, meetings, drone racing, eSports and other activities.

The study found $424 million is needed for the racecourse project — about $100 million higher than earlier estimates. The cost includes $252.2 million for the clubhouse, $120.5 million for infrastructure improvements, $29.6 million in work on the infield and track, and $21.5 million for demolition.

No one was prepared to commit to paying such a sizable tab.

With the high price tag, The Stronach Group — the Canadian horse racing conglomerate that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park — could seek to move the Preakness to Laurel Park, which the company has been upgrading. Any move of the Preakness would need a change to state law which, barring a disaster, requires the race to be run in Baltimore.

The study doesn’t recommend who should pay for Pimlico’s demolition and rebuild, but suggests city and state officials and The Stronach Group enter into formal negotiations about the next steps.

The Stronach Group declined to address Thursday whether it would consider a public-private partnership to rebuild Pimlico.

“Our decision about a capital investment in Pimlico, or any of our other properties, will depend on a full review of the capital and operating needs of the racing industry to ensure a financially viable future for Maryland racing,” the company said in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

In October, a lawsuit Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach filed against his daughter, Belinda Stronach, revealed an explosive power struggle and spending dispute between the 86-year old patriarch and his 52-year-old heir. Since the suit was filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, racing insiders have expressed concerns about its possible impact on the company, North America’s largest owner and operator of tracks.

The Sun obtained an outline of the stadium authority proposal on Wednesday. The stadium authority released the full report Thursday.

City officials were quick to point out that at least $100 million of the estimated $424 million would need to be spent on water lines, sewage pipes and other needs — plus Pimlico’s demolition — to make the area fit for redevelopment, even if the track disappeared.

But Pugh and others were holding out hope that the Preakness would remain.

“It's time for the city, the state and the (Maryland) Jockey Club to get back in a room and find the best path forward," said William Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development agency.

Cole said the city is in the midst of a plan to acquire and demolish vacant properties in adjacent neighborhoods and solicit developers.

“There is active development interest right now in Park Heights,” he said.

The racetrack is surrounded by six neighborhoods. Pimlico Good Neighbors incorporates the racing complex and houses to the west, which are adjacent to Arlington; Glen sits northwest of the track, with Mount Washington to the northeast; Levindale is situated east of the course; and Central Park Heights lies to the south.

Many residents have been following the Pimlico drama for years.

Ralph Holloway, 66, said he would like to see the track remain as it is, but he supports redevelopment if it benefits surrounding neighborhoods.

“I’m for it, as far as development to lift the community up,” said Holloway, who grew up in the neighborhood and has lived there more than 50 years. “We need to be uplifting the neighborhood, instead of tearing it down.”

While the neighborhood is dotted with corner stores and small markets, Edna Robinson, 58, said she’d like to see a grocery store incorporated as part of the redevelopment, as the study suggested. The closest one to her home on Wolverton Avenue is about a mile away, she said.

It's not clear how much appetite the state has to help with funding.

“I don’t know where you’re going to get all that money, and how it’s going to be divided up,” state House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch said.

“The Preakness is identified with Baltimore, as well as the rest of the state. The question is: ‘How do you fund all of that?’” Busch said. “Certainly, the mayor and the governor have to be the ones that have to collaborate on doing most of that. But you also have to remember, all that property is owned by The Stronach Group, so it’s a little complex.”

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the governor is "on record supporting keeping the Preakness in Baltimore and at Pimlico.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. was unavailable for comment.

Seven miles northwest of downtown Baltimore, the "Old Hilltop" track is steeped in history. It is where Man o' War romped to victory in the 1920 Preakness and the first tote board was introduced in 1933. Seabiscuit upset War Admiral there in a 1938 match race and Secretariat overwhelmed the Preakness field in 1973.

But vast sections of Pimlico now have a patched-together, industrial look. There are mismatched colors and materials. The clubhouse — where high-end guests dine — has not undergone significant renovation since it was constructed decades ago.

The $426,000 study was funded by the Maryland Jockey Club — which is owned by The Stronach Group — the Baltimore Development Corp., the city of Baltimore and the stadium authority. The authority worked with partners Crossroads Consulting and Populous, an architectural firm.

Baltimore elected officials hoped the study could provide a path to keeping the Preakness in the city.

“The legislature said 30 years ago the Preakness should be run at Pimlico as a matter of public policy in the best interest of the city, the region and the industry,” said Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg, whose district includes Pimlico. “My sense of the legislature is there is not support to remove that requirement from the law.”

The Stronach Group declined to answer a question about the legislative requirement. The company has said it is impractical to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a racetrack that is 35 miles away from Laurel Park. Pimlico currently stages just 12 racing days a year compared with Laurel Park’s 159.

The study authors considered — and quickly dismissed — two alternative scenarios for Pimlico’s future. One involved minimal redevelopment and neither would have required the track’s configuration to change. In the suggested option, the track would shift clockwise and be parallel with West Belvedere Avenue, allowing it to be “more compatible with the community and neighboring land uses.”

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who represents the area, called a rebuild of Pimlico “exciting” and “long overdue.”

“The communities around the track certainly deserve this level of revitalization,” he said. “I would equate it to building the Inner Harbor.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Colin Campbell and Sarah Meehan contributed to this article.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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