At a Town Hall meeting recently with Baltimore City’s state Senate delegation, Mayor Catherine Pugh dropped in hurriedly and spent a few minutes ticking off her current priorities. At the top of her Power Point list was keeping Pimlico race track’s Preakness in Baltimore.
In a city that is losing population, leads the region in homicides and the nation in police corruption, has more under-performing schools than any part of the state and a transportation tangle incapable of getting workers to where their jobs are, the mayor, the Baltimore Sun editorial page, my City Council member and the economic development cheerleaders are giddily embracing a Maryland Stadium Authority strategy to spend $424 million, most of it sure to be taxpayer money, to restore and embellish a race track.
It’s a ridiculous priority. That track exists mostly for one day in May each year — the running of the Preakness Stakes. On that one racing day there is an hour of afternoon national TV coverage of 100,000 mostly non-city people in silly hats and finery drinking pricey cocktails and noshing while gambling on thoroughbred horses. When the racing and drinking end, Preakness celebrants rush toward the 'burbs, their hotels or the airport. Nothing happens there that materially benefits the community.
I moved to Baltimore from D.C. a few years ago, bought a house and settled in. At the time it seemed to me that for all of its ills, Baltimore was not unlike where our glitzy capital was in the 1990s: troubled by drugs and crime, scandal-plagued schools, concentrated poverty and a surrounding ring of suburbanites disdainful and afraid of coming into town. Once a government town, many agencies and their employees were moving out and others were hoping to follow.
Washington today is almost Manhattan. Shiny new office and apartment buildings are rising up nearly everywhere. The new riverfront in southwest D.C. is booming, and the old Navy Yard is full of apartments, new offices and restaurants. Educated young people are moving in and taking jobs with or creating their own startup companies. Schools are improving so that middle-class families feel less need to flee them, and real estate prices are soaring.
I had speculated that Baltimore could, with creative thinking, become Brooklyn, Manhattan’s hip-and-prospering neighbor. My daughter lives in Brooklyn, spending an hour on public transit to her job in Manhattan. Our MARC train and Metro offer D.C. and Baltimore a similar timetable and competing high-speed rail dreams would cut that commute in half. Alas, no one at city hall is pushing hard for high-speed rail or offering taxpayer funds to spruce up collapsing Penn Station, where people from D.C. and Philadelphia come for work and play.
Horse racing is yesterday’s sport, with Americans ranking it 13th in a 2016 poll of sporting favorites, and the amount spent gambling on it falling to $9 billion in 2016 from nearly $15 billion in 2002. State-run lotteries, casino slot machines, internet betting and disunion within the racing industry has made the “sport of kings” as contemporary as homemade root beer. Rebuild Pimlico to revitalize the neighborhood? Why not just subsidize a shopping center and office park with a supermarket and lots of affordable housing? Maybe build a new police training facility there, too. Leave the abused horses and cheating trainers at home.
Our Baltimore is too often about nostalgia, not the future. When Pimlico was thriving and racing was a national pastime, Charm City was an industrial giant of 900,000 residents, and National Bohemian was a local brew, not an afterthought brand for an out-of-state conglomerate. Although the racing industry helped push through casino gambling legislation in exchange for a big piece of the action, the $70-plus million that horse racing gets every year from the state’s takings has not slowed the bleeding.
The $424 million proposed for a new track could be better spent on housing, street and bridge repair and public safety. City schools have a $3 billion project backlog to bring them into 21st century with air conditioning and heating that works, and millions more dollars are needed to improve teaching and student outcomes. Our police don’t have the communications equipment and training capacity they need to combat our dire crime situation. We have inadequate cable and wifi and crumbling sewer and water pipes. Neighborhoods that fear for the safety of their children want playgrounds and community centers. Gov. Larry Hogan sabotaged plans for a new state office and retail center and the cross-town light rail, but no one at City Hall seems focused on those issues.
The Port Covington project, whatever its shortcomings, is a step toward the sort of future the city needs. So was Baltimore’s crap-shoot bid for the second Amazon headquarters. Perhaps there’s a case for throwing $40 million at the ancient Lexington Market, although it’s hard to see the payoff.
But half a billion new dollars to resuscitate Pimlico? That’s flogging a dead horse.
Bill Hamilton (email@example.com) is a retired Washington communications strategist who lives in Bolton Hill.