To put it mildly, we have not been fans of The Stronach Group over the years. The owners of the Maryland Jockey Club have brought nothing but constant threats to the future of the Preakness in Baltimore and a seemingly intentional campaign of disinvestment in Pimlico while building up their other Maryland thoroughbred track in Laurel. When former Mayor Catherine Pugh got nasty with the company in a series of letters and eventually a lawsuit this winter and spring, we questioned her tactics but not her basic point: Stronach has been indifferent at best and hostile at worst toward a major cultural institution and an anchor of northwest Baltimore.
It’s notable, then, that we're feeling a flicker of optimism about the detente Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Stronach Group head Belinda Stronach worked out during a conversation on Preakness day. Baltimore has withdrawn its lawsuit, and now the company has directed one of its attorneys in Maryland, Alan Rifkin, to start a new series of talks with the city, state and other players in horse racing to explore the possibility of a redevelopment deal for Old Hilltop. City Solicitor Andre Davis is leading the city’s side of the discussions, which are expected to begin in earnest as early as this week.
We have been down this road before. Stronach has floated Pimlico redevelopment ideas before, and during the last couple of years it participated with the city and state in funding a pair of Maryland Stadium Authority reports on the condition of the track and the possibilities for renewal. We get that the price tag associated with that second study — $424 million for a wholesale re-imagining of the site, with a re-oriented track at the center of a large mixed-use development — scared a lot of people off. We argued at the time that the idea wasn’t nearly as daunting when broken down into its constituent parts with the costs appropriately divided among public and private sector partners, and when the potential for the facility to be used far beyond the current truncated Preakness meet is considered. But we also think former Jockey Club CEO Joseph DeFrancis is right that you could upgrade Pimlico enough to make it a suitable home for the second leg of the Triple Crown for much less than that — about half as much, he figures.
Now the question is whether all the various potential sources of funding for a Pimlico revitalization might add up to a viable plan. The state already sends about $8 million a year to the horse tracks for capital improvements, with most of the money going to thoroughbred tracks. State law is silent on how much can go to any particular track, and Stronach has spent the vast majority of its funds on Laurel (and is proposing to spend yet more there rather than at Pimlico). If the state directs most of that money to Pimlico and lifts the current sunset on racetrack renewal funds, they could support a large bond issue for the track. The city could bring tax increment financing to bear on a redevelopment plan, and some of the infrastructure work needed for a Pimlico redevelopment needs to happen anyway. Non-racing-related private development on the Pimlico grounds is another potential piece of the puzzle — uses associated with Sinai Hospital could be a good fit.
Might the state find ways to contribute more to the project? To support one day a year of horse racing, maybe not. To help revitalize a corner of Baltimore with some strong assets but real challenges? Maybe so. It may turn out to be a fortuitous coincidence that Mr. Rifkin is in charge of pursuing these questions for Stronach: A generation ago, working for then-Gov. William Donald Scheafer, he was the key architect for the financing of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and what is now M&T Bank Stadium.
Mayor Young’s position is that keeping the Preakness at Pimlico is the non-negotiable baseline for talks, and the question is how improvements at Pimlico can be leveraged into a broader revitalization of the surrounding community. We’re with him 100%. Stronach is insistent that whatever is done for Pimlico isn’t at the expense of the $70 million-$80 million in upgrades they believe are needed to make Laurel Park the suitable home for the bulk of Maryland horse racing. We’re not opposed to upgrades at Laurel, so long as they occur alongside a major overhaul of Pimlico.
And that's where the trust issue resurfaces. Appealing as a fresh start with Stronach would be, there’s a lot of baggage here and a lot of reason to question whether the company will come through on its promises for Pimlico. There’s something it could do to ameliorate the situation. The Jockey Club shut down a 7,000-seat section of the Pimlico grandstands just before this year's Preakness out of safety concerns. Announcing at the outset of negotiations a plan to get those seats back online before the 2020 Preakness (not to mention the bathrooms that were out of order this year) would be a welcome gesture of good faith.