Maryland Stadium Authority studying future of Pimlico, Preakness

The Maryland Stadium Authority is asked to study Pimlico Race Course's suitability as home of the Preakness.

State officials have asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to determine what it would cost to modernize Pimlico Race Course so it can remain home of the Preakness, which has been run there for more than a century.

The authority's board agreed to conduct the study this week after the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation requested an assessment of the 146-year-old facility's economic health and the impact of the Preakness on the city, the racing industry and the state.

The study comes amid uncertainty about Pimlico's future. The Maryland Jockey Club's general manager said last year that the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown and Baltimore's largest annual sporting event, might need to move to Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County because Pimlico was too old to be renovated. During last year's race — attended by a record 131,680 people — a problem with water pressure in the grandstand caused toilets to stop working.

The Jockey Club did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this article.

Stadium authority Executive Director Michael J. Frenz said it is the first time the authority, which operates the Camden Yards sports complex and other state facilities, has been brought in to study the privately owned racetrack. According to the authority, its only previous involvement was a short-lived inquiry into possible construction of a downtown "supertrack" more than a decade ago.

"We never advocated for a role in these types of things," Frenz said.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the Pimlico area and sought the study, said the stadium authority's involvement is significant for the future of Old Hilltop and its iconic race.

"We want it to be an unbiased assessment of the benefits of keeping it there ... and also the negative aspects if it were to move," he said. "We think the case is there in the merits that it should stay there."

But Rosenberg said he's prepared to let the study reach its own conclusions.

"It's far better than using political legislative activity to achieve that result of keeping the Preakness there," he said. Rosenberg said the study does not foreshadow a state takeover of Pimlico, but added that if the study determines the track should be redeveloped, a public-private partnership could be involved.

According to the Maryland Racing Commission, part of the labor department, the stadium authority was chosen for its expertise in conducting such studies of sports and entertainment facilities.

"No one is talking about moving the Preakness right now," department spokeswoman Maureen O'Connor said.

The stadium authority has agreed to conduct the study in two phases. The first will focus on the condition of Pimlico's facilities. The second will draw on information from Phase One to "identify potential development options."

The cost of the $175,000 first phase will be shared by the authority, Baltimore Development Corp. and Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico. For the $105,000 second phase, the Maryland Racing Commission would kick in $30,000 if the General Assembly appropriates the money.

William H. Cole, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., praised the agreement.

"Pimlico and the Preakness are incredibly important to Baltimore, and we will work with the Jockey Club, the Maryland Racing Commission and the stadium authority to ensure that they both remain for generations," he said.

Frenz said the agreement will next be submitted to Senate and House of Delegates budget committees. If they do not object, a memorandum of understanding will be drawn up among the partners.

The study would be conducted by the authority's consultant, Crossroad Consulting Services. Under its plan, the first phase would take six months and the second would take four.

In a letter to the authority, Crossroads principal Susan A. Sieger described Pimlico as "antiquated and in need of substantial renovations."

"It lacks modern day seating products, amenities and technology found in comparable sports venues, and due to its age and condition, is expensive to maintain," she wrote.

Sieger said Crossroads' study will be "preliminary in nature" and would not yield a master plan for the property in Northwest Baltimore.

The company plans to conduct interviews with industry representatives, Pimlico workers, state and city economic development officials and others to hear their views. Sieger also said Crossroads would tour the facility, document its deficiencies and study industry trends to assess Pimlico's suitability to host the Preakness over the long term.

Pimlico has been home of the Preakness since 1873. At a Maryland Racing Commission meeting in May, Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group — parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club — said the Preakness might be kept at Pimlico with a limited racing schedule. State law requires the Preakness to run at Pimlico, barring an emergency or disaster at the track.

mdressser@baltsun.com

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