Baltimore delegates give thumbs down to plan to allow state bonds for Laurel, Bowie horse racing development

Baltimore's members of the House of Delegates objected Saturday to a plan that would allow The Stronach Group to use state bonds to pay for upgrades at horse racing facilities in Laurel and Bowie, provided the company made progress on redeveloping Pimlico Race Course.

The city’s House delegation voted 16-0 not to back the plan, which is making its way through the state Senate. That could spell the defeat of the measure at the last minute, as the General Assembly adjourns Monday night.

Baltimore’s delegates were skeptical about the bill, raising concerns that it would not guarantee that the Pimlico track in Northwest Baltimore would remain open and host the Preakness Stakes race each May.

“We want Pimlico to be redeveloped, but we also want Preakness to stay,” said Democratic Del. Tony Bridges, whose district includes the track.

“Our fight here is that we want this to stay here,” said Democratic Del. Regina Boyce. She raised concerns that the bill would allow The Stronach Group to “make a pseudo-plan for the Pimlico land and still move to Laurel.”

With the city delegates recommending not to support the bill, it makes it unlikely that the House would agree to it.

Bill Hecht, a Stronach Group executive, said the bill would provide a “road map for constructive dialog” between the city and his company.

“With the city not supporting the bill, we must only conclude that what they’d prefer is status quo, which is significant negative implications to the Maryland racing industry and, as well, to the community surrounding Pimlico,” Hecht said.

Now, there will be “continued uncertainty” about Pimlico, Hecht said.

The bill would grant The Stronach Group’s main request: allowing the state to issue bonds that would be used to accelerate $120 million worth of improvements at the Laurel Park race course and the Bowie Training Center. The bonds would be paid back using state subsidies from slot machines in the state’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account.

The Stronach Group plans to redevelop Laurel into a “super track” capable of hosing high-profile races such as the Breeders Cup.

There are concerns that Stronach would eventually try to move the Preakness to the improved Laurel track, though state law only allows the relocation of the race from Baltimore in the case of a disaster or emergency. Stronach has committed to running the Preakness at Pimilico through 2020.

Under the bill, The Stronach Group would not be allowed to get the money from the bonds unless it met a series of requirements for presenting and winning approval for a development plan at Pimlico. The development plan would not be required to include a horse racing track.

Democratic Del. Nick Mosby said he felt rushed and “forced in the eleventh hour” to support the plan. He suggested that a better path would have been to require The Stronach Group to use state bonds to upgrade all of its facilities.

Democratic Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, who helped craft the proposal, which he describes as a compromise, said he respects the position of his House colleagues. He said he didn’t see a need to include a provision to keep the Preakness in Baltimore because “that’s already the law.” The compromise, he argued, would ensure development at both Laurel and Pimlico.

“At the end of the day, it’s still state law that the Preakness has to stay in Baltimore,” Ferguson said. “Any effort to move the Preakness would require a legislative fight, and we feel confident we can win that fight. In the meantime, something has to happen to improve Pimlico. It’s been allowed to waste away for 16 years. At some point, someone has to act.”

The Senate is scheduled to give the bill a final vote on Monday morning. If approved, it would move to the House for consideration — and the full House is unlikely to go against the wishes of the Baltimore delegates.

Another wrinkle is that the bill started out as legislation relating to the track at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. The original bill would have allowed $350,000 of the Racing Facility Renewal Fund to be used at the fairgrounds track over five years.

Del. Michele Guyton, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the original bill, has said she’s concerned that it could be “derailed” after getting caught up in the debate over Pimlico and the Preakness. An identical Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, has not moved forward.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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