At a recent forum on redeveloping areas of abandonment and blight in Baltimore, a community leader expressed angry frustration that the city government and the business community had not moved faster and with more zeal to turn things around. There’s been too much complacency and a culture of low expectations and for too long, said Michael Seipp, executive director of the Southwest Partnership, and there was vigorous applause for what he said.
No one could disagree with it. For as much progress as we’ve seen in certain parts of the city, there are still vast stretches of Baltimore that need new ideas, visionary leadership and fresh investment. Pimlico Race Course and Park Heights is right there in the long list of places that have been waiting for renewal.
Now, there’s a plan, and it looks like a good one, to transform Pimlico and keep the Preakness in Baltimore while making Laurel Park the center of horse racing the rest of the year. I am certainly not the only Baltimorean, or Marylander, who is something close to shocked at this news, first reported by The Baltimore Sun.
There’s shock because our expectations for Pimlico have fallen lower and lower with each passing year.
“It’s unbelievable,” said an ecstatic Mike Pons, partner with his brother, Josh, in Country Life Farm in Harford County, one of the leading breeders of thoroughbred race horses in the state. “It’s unbelievable that, in this era when all we get is bad news, this is going to happen. I’m just so tickled. The phone has been ringing off the hook. It’s a bonanza for everyone.”
Mike Pons believes there will be a ripple effect throughout Maryland, in horse breeding and related industries, from the transformation of Pimlico and improvements in operations at Laurel. “It’s a win, win, win,” he said.
Back in the winter, he was not so hopeful. He and his brother attended a supper with officials of The Stronach Group, owner of Pimlico and Laurel, and other horse breeders and trainers. Those assembled heard of Stronach’s ambition to consolidate operations at Laurel and leave Pimlico behind. “I turned to Josh and said, ‘You know, this could be the last supper for Pimlico,’” Mike Pons said. “These guys [Stronach] are from out of town and they don’t understand the history and how much the Preakness means to our industry and our state.
“But now this, it’s a complete turnabout. This is going to be a big wind-shift for our entire industry.”
Though the Pons brothers are closer to it because of their trade, those winter feelings about Pimlico are familiar to all of us.
Every spring, as the Preakness approaches, we hear from Stronach that this year’s could be the last for the big stakes race in Baltimore. We hear about the problems: The clubhouse and grandstand are falling apart, the neighborhood has been in long decay. And so, we hear the annual threat about moving the big race to Laurel.
Baltimoreans, who have had our civic psyche beaten by four hard years of bleak news, faced the very real prospect of another blow: We really might lose a storied racing event that brings millions of dollars in revenue to the city. Preakness Day is one of the biggest days of the Baltimore year, when we get national media coverage for something other than violent crime or municipal dysfunction. Losing it would add another layer of grim to the grimness.
But, rather than accept that outcome as inevitable, many of us thought there must be a solution — a way to keep the Preakness at Pimlico while turning it into something grand and useful to the community. The only thing keeping us from a bold re-imagination of the track was strong leadership and vision, and the will to make it happen.
In this space, I made a few suggestions: Keep the dirt and turf tracks, and build a new clubhouse and grandstand with luxury boxes and a parking garage. Give up some of the parking area for other uses — a further expansion of Sinai Hospital, maybe a shopping center, a concert venue and an outdoor cinema. I threw in the idea of space for a soccer field or a bike track. Bring back the Baltimore City Fair and stage it there. Have a farmer’s market. Provide a stabling area for Baltimore’s arabbers and their horse-drawn produce wagons. Pimlico could be a great place for 5Ks and 10Ks, all kinds of walk-or-run fundraisers. There could be other equestrian events: Dressage, draft-horse competitions and other ways to show off Maryland’s equine heritage.
I was just offering ideas in the spirit of the late William Donald Schaefer, who, as mayor of this town for 15 years (before his two terms as Maryland governor), was famous for three little words: “Do it now.” Whenever someone invokes his name, it’s a way of expressing impatience with the progress of this city and the toleration of low expectations.
So pardon our shock at the Pimlico news.
Last year, as the Preakness approached, we heard the owners say they planned no further investment in the race track, and things were looking grim again. But when a reporter asked him about all that, Gov. Larry Hogan said, “The Preakness isn’t going anywhere.” Now that a feasible plan has been rolled out, the governor can get behind the policy and legislative actions that will be needed to make those words stick.