Baltimore politicians and neighborhood leaders joined representatives from the company that owns the Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park thoroughbred tracks to make a pitch to state lawmakers Tuesday for a $389 million aid package that would revamp both tracks and keep the storied Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.
They faced little negative feedback to their plan, which is expected to advance in the General Assembly.
That’s in stark contrast to last year when debate over the future of Pimlico and horse racing in Maryland featured accusations of neglect and a city lawsuit filed against the track owner.
The new plan is “a great opportunity for us to bring racing into the future," said Craig Fravel, CEO of racing for the Stronach Group, the Canadian company that owns Laurel and Pimlico.
Fravel and a group of boosters of the plan made their rounds to two General Assembly committees on Tuesday, selling the “Racing and Community Development Act” as a way to upgrade the century-old tracks, boost the racing industry and help neighborhoods near the facilities.
- Spending approximately $389 million to renovate Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. Laurel would become a year-round facility for training and racing, while Pimlico would become a multi-use facility that would only host racing during the spring Preakness meet.
- Raising most of the money by having the Maryland Stadium Authority issue bonds that would be paid back over 30 years by the Maryland Lottery. The lottery funds would be replenished largely by slot machine proceeds that the state currently uses to support the racing industry.
- Allowing Baltimore City or a city-designated entity to sell off about 50 acres around Pimlico for private development.
- Establishing tax incentives, including a sales tax exemption for construction materials and other goods that are bought for the track renovations.
- Studying the future of Stronach’s shuttered Bowie Training Center.
- Creating a committee within the Maryland Racing Commission to report on the health and welfare of racehorses.
House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is a lead sponsor of the racetracks bill, said the plans would ensure a sustainable racing industry at Laurel, while also revitalizing Pimlico into a year-round destination.
“But this bill is about much more than that,” Jones said. “It’s about regional cooperation. It’s about civic pride and economic redevelopment. And it’s about showcasing Maryland’s racing to the entire world.”
In addition to having Jones as a sponsor, Senate President Bill Ferguson has expressed support for the objectives of the legislation. Slightly different versions of the bill have been introduced in the House of Delegates and the state Senate.
“I don’t think there are many objections,” Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s about figuring out the various pieces. I have not heard major opposition.”
Ferguson said details still subject to negotiation include what happens to the property in Bowie and how the race track land is transferred to local governments.
“There are a lot of nuances. It’s a big complicated agreement,” Ferguson said. “I have every faith the committee will work those details out.”
Michael Johansen, a lobbyist for the Stronach-owned Maryland Jockey Club, called the plans “unprecedented.”
“I think it’s a great testament to the work many of us have done over many months to get to this point,” he told lawmakers.
For years, Stronach has struggled to maintain quality facilities at Laurel and Pimlico — even with the help of state subsidies for construction.
The company proposed consolidating its racing operations at Laurel, and last year floated the idea of a “super track” at that facility. Stronach asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would have allowed the state to issue bonds to accelerate upgrades at Laurel.
But Baltimore politicians and local residents objected to the possible loss of the Preakness from the city. Baltimore residents were bussed down to Annapolis to press lawmakers not to go along with the Laurel super track proposal. And then-mayor Catherine Pugh filed a lawsuit seeking to allow the city government to seize ownership of the track and the Preakness.
Soon after, Pugh, a Democrat, resigned amid a growing scandal over her sales of children’s books.
The direction of negotiations shifted after the 144th Preakness Stakes last May, when Mayor Bernard C. “Jack" Young — who replaced Pugh — met with Belinda Stronach, the company’s chairman, and the two agreed to set aside their differences. The city dropped its lawsuit and representatives from Stronach, the city and the horse industry hammered out the deal that’s currently before lawmakers.
Young, a Democrat, noted that one year ago, the effort to find money to renovate Pimlico and keep the Preakness in Baltimore “faced long odds for success.”
“Fast forward a little over a year and here we are today: Making the turn down the home stretch with those neighborhoods cheering us on for what I hope is a win for Pimlico, for Preakness, for all of Maryland,” Young said.
Sen. Guy Guzzone, who is sponsoring the racetrack renovations bill in the Senate, said last year’s dealings were “a little rough.” The Howard County Democrat said this year’s effort focuses on an efficient use of money to preserve the Preakness and help neighborhoods in Baltimore, Bowie and Laurel.
Fravel, the Stronach racing official, said of the turnaround: “It’s really a miracle."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.