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Carrots and sticks to keep the Preakness in Baltimore

The north Grandstand area of Pimlico Race Course will be shut down a month before the Preakness Stakes.

We’re glad to see the leaders of Baltimore’s General Assembly delegation keeping the issue of the disinvestment in Pimlico and the future of the Preakness Stakes front and center. But we’re also glad to hear that Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is seeking something of a reset in Baltimore’s relationship with The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park. In order to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, we need to keep the pressure on — and the lines of communication open.

The answers to the questions Del. Cheryl Glenn and Sen. Antonio Hayes posed to the Racing Commission in their request for an investigation into Stronach’s management of Pimlico aren’t mysteries. We know that Stronach has spent the vast majority of its state-subsidized racetrack renewal funds on Laurel, the newer, more modern track where it would like to consolidate all Maryland thoroughbred racing, including the Preakness. We know that the spending has come at the expense of Pimlico, and it’s no great stretch to conclude that the emergency closure of 7,000 grandstand seats just a month before the Preakness and the malfunctioning bathrooms on site the day of the race are a direct result of that spending.

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But we also know the Stronach Group is right that state law did not require any particular distribution of renewal funds between Pimlico and Laurel. The track owners brought proposals for specific uses for the funds to the Racing Commission for approval, and the commission appears not to have considered whether Stronach’s decision to use 87 percent of its racetrack renewal funds at Laurel was wise or in keeping with the requirement in state law that the Preakness be run at Pimlico absent an emergency. It wasn’t required to, nor had lawmakers paid much attention to that question until a few months ago.

The important thing about the request by Ms. Glenn and Mr. Hayes is that it serves as a reminder that legislators are paying attention to it now and that their interest hasn’t waned in the weeks since the Preakness concluded. Legislators from the city and beyond need to make clear that they hold leverage over the track owners. The state provided more than $70 million last year to support the horse racing industry, most of it to thoroughbred racing, through purse subsidies and racetrack renewal funds, generated by proceeds from slot machine gambling. Given the uproar when the public discovered the open secret that legalizing slot machines and later full casinos didn’t really result in more money for schools, coupled with the expected scramble to find funds for the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations for improving K-12 education, racing’s hold on that $70 million a year looks pretty tenuous. The racing industry has traditionally had a great deal of influence in Annapolis, but we question whether the new generation of legislators who have recently joined the House and Senate feel much loyalty to it — particularly when the owner of Maryland’s thoroughbred tracks appears intent on abandoning its investment in a distressed corner of a distressed city.

But if state legislators are prodding Stronach to the negotiating table, Mr. Young is wisely seeking to welcome the company to it. At a Baltimore Sun-sponsored event Wednesday to discuss the redevelopment of Port Covington, Mr. Young responded to a question from the audience about Pimlico by noting that he had recently had a positive conversation with Stronach Group Chairwoman and President Belinda Stronach and that he his optimistic about the prospect of productive talks about keeping the Preakness in Baltimore. That's quite a contrast to the tactics of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who went aggressively on the offensive against Stronach before her resignation from office this spring, bringing up personal rifts in the Stronach family amid a number of perfectly valid criticisms of the company’s management of its Maryland properties. If that didn’t cut off any dialogue between the city and the company, a lawsuit she filed seeking to seize Pimlico by eminent domain certainly did. Stronach’s official position has been that it will not negotiate unless the city drops its suit.

Mr. Young hasn’t done that, but he does have the opportunity to play good cop to Ms. Pugh’s bad cop. Stronach should recognize that its failure this year to win approval for state assistance in its long-term investment plans for Laurel Park shows that its clout in the legislature is limited. At the same time, Pimlico boosters must see that the governor and General Assembly aren’t jumping to facilitate the $400 million-plus redevelopment plan for the track described in a Maryland Stadium Authority report last year. If Mr. Young can dial down the heated rhetoric and build support for a plan to keep the Preakness at Pimlico that centers on economic and community development rather than nostalgia, he stands a chance of settling this issue once and for all. It’s a tough task, but a Maryland tradition — and, more importantly, the fate of several Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods — depend on it.

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