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Maryland Senate advances plan to aid horse track owner on Laurel, Bowie renovations, require progress on Pimlico

The Maryland Senate advanced a plan Friday that would allow The Stronach Group to use state bonds to pay for upgrades at horseracing facilities in Laurel and Bowie — provided the company makes progress on redeveloping Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to the plan, setting it up for a final vote Monday. It has the support of The Stronach Group, but Baltimore’s delegation to the House of Delegates has expressed opposition to it.

It would not require that the redevelopment of Pimlico include a horse racing track, even though a state law requires that the Preakness Stakes be run in Baltimore.

The bill would grant The Stronach Group’s main request for the legislative session that ends Monday: Allowing the state to issue bonds that would be used to accelerate $120 million worth of improvements at the Laurel Park race course and the Bowie Training Center. The bonds would be paid back using state subsidies from slot machines in the state’s Racetrack Facility Renewal Account.

Stronach asked for the bonds so that the company can speed up its plan to create a “super track” at Laurel capable of hosting high-profile races such as the Breeders’ Cup.

Many Pimlico boosters see the focus on Laurel as spelling the eventual demise of the northwest Baltimore track.

Under the bill moving forward, the bond money for Laurel and Bowie would not be turned over to Stronach until the company met a series of steps in the redevelopment of Pimlico. If the redevelopment is not completed within seven years, Stronach would pay a penalty to the city of Baltimore of $1 million a month.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, who conceived the complex plan, said it’s the best way to ensure the Pimlico property is not abandoned.

“If you take the 30,000-foot view, this problem has existed for 16 years,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, referring to the period of the track’s current ownership. “Both sides have been incapable of coming together because their interests have been unaligned.”

Ferguson said the bill will result in Stronach and city officials having a conversation to “figure out where we’re going.”

Ferguson said he’s confident the bill will protect both the Pimlico property and the Preakness, the second leg in horseracing’s Triple Crown. The track will host the 144th running of the Preakness on May 18.

“I would not have supported a bill that said 140 years of history would go,” he said.

Sen. Cory McCray, another Baltimore Democrat who also is on the committee, said he believes the bill has sufficient “safeguards and protections” for the neighborhoods around Pimlico.

Democratic Sen. Antonio Hayes of Baltimore said the plan represents the “second-best” option for the race tracks.

“It forces, in law, the owners, the city and everyone to come together,” he said.

The Stronach Group is on board with the plan.

“This step forward recognizes the important considerations that will need to be discussed about the future of Maryland racing and all the interests of Baltimore city and other stakeholders,” said Bill Hecht, a Stronach executive.

Baltimore’s acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, said Friday night that he believes the city’s senators are fighting hard to keep the Preakness in Baltimore.

“I’m very happy with the work of Senator Ferguson and what he’s doing to make sure that Pimlico is protected,” Young said. “The Preakness is in Baltimore. It’s an economic engine here. If we lose Pimlico, we lose all of that. With Baltimore city on the verge of a renaissance, we cannot afford to lose the Preakness.”

Others did not agree with the Senate’s maneuvers on the bill.

Democratic Del. Michelle Guyton of Baltimore County was frustrated that senators used a bill of hers to add the language about the bonds and the Pimlico redevelopment plan. Guyton’s original bill had a narrower focus. It would have allowed a small portion of the Racetrack Facility Renewal Fund money to be spent at the track at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

“It would be extremely disheartening to me if this piece of valuable legislation, which has absolutely nothing to do with other highly controversial racetrack negotiations, is derailed at this point in the process,” Guyton said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, Baltimore’s state delegates voted not to support any changes to Guyton’s bill.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs the city’s House delegation, said she has concerns about it. The delegation plans to meet Saturday morning to review the details of the bill and to consider whether to support it.

If the bill again wins approval Monday in the Senate, the House would need to agree to the changes for the measure to go to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his consideration.

The General Assembly adjourns at midnight Monday.

pwood@baltsun.com

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