Hi ho, Pimlico: Preakness revival plan deserves its warm reception | COMMENTARY

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the future of keeping the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course seemed dim. Baltimore officials asked a judge to give it ownership of the track, a move that infuriated owner The Stronach Group. Even the longtime president of the Senate (a politician known to have more than a furlong’s worth of clout in Annapolis) was openly speculating that moving the Preakness out of the city to Laurel Park made more sense than trying to renovate Baltimore’s historic facility. It was messy. It was dispiriting. And it looked like a century and a half of tradition was about to gallop out of town.

And then there was this week’s hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee where a $389 million plan received nary a criticism from lawmakers and the public. Perhaps that’s because it seems almost too good to be true: The proposal would keep the Preakness in Baltimore, renovate both Pimlico and Laurel accommodate an expansion of Sinai Hospital, and provide for athletic fields and other community access in Northwest Baltimore .


Of course, one stumble-free February hearing does not final passage nor bill-signing ceremony make, but it’s difficult not to be impressed by what city, state and Maryland Jockey Club negotiators have achieved in slightly more than 12 months. Take note, graduate school students majoring in political science or public policy: There’s a master’s thesis in here.

The key points?


First, that major legislation works best when all parties negotiate well in advance of the General Assembly’s 90-day session. The genesis of House Bill 1056 (the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020) was really in the rapprochement last spring of Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Belinda Stronach, The Stronach Group’s chair and president.

Second is finding a funding source that doesn’t stress taxpayers. In this case, most of the money is coming from bonds backed by gambling revenue already directed at racing and redevelopment.

And finally, a little of the old give and take can speed matters along nicely. For example: oversight of the project by the Maryland Stadium Authority, quasi-public ownership of the tracks, and even enhanced oversight of equine health and safety.

Is this a perfect plan? We’re not sure what such a thing would even look like. But we do know that keeping the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown in Charm City deserved to be a high priority in City Hall and the State House. This is simply one of those events that draws such national attention — that generates such good will, celebrity presence, tourism and hospitality — that it would be difficult to imagine springtime in Baltimore without it, from the infield parties to the fashionable hats and the Black-Eyed Susans. But this is more than just public relations and feel-good politics. It’s a shot in the economic development arm for a community that feels both neglected and long imposed upon by the presence of a race track. In case you hadn’t noticed, these have been challenging times for Baltimore, where public corruption and violent crime have often generated far more attention of late than the city’s longstanding problems of under- and un-employment, alcohol and drug addiction, concentrated poverty and lack of opportunity.

The proposal deserves legislative scrutiny, of course. Any project of this magnitude does. At some level, the renovation of race tracks is competing for public funds against other worthy causes, most particularly the Kirwan Commission recommendations for K-12 public education. Yet public investment in jobs and infrastructure can be just as vital as money spent on human capital (which is why we build roads and sewer lines and not just schools). The Preakness alone is believed to generate more than $50 million in economic value annually, and that’s not counting racing’s broader role in Maryland’s $1.3 billion equine industry and its estimated 21,000 jobs.

Granted, there are also still some uncertainties, such as exactly what to do about a horse training facility in Bowie. But nothing appears insurmountable, which is a credit to the parties involved. You don’t win a race on the first turn, but the prospects look good. And should the plan cross the finish line as expected, it will be an early feather in the cap for the Baltimore region’s leadership team, new Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore and nearly-new House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County.