In any normal year, this would be the moment when horse racing fans in Maryland begin handicapping the upcoming Preakness Stakes. The Kentucky Derby would have been Saturday and Baltimore’s signature sporting event would have been just two weeks away.
Instead, this might be the biggest week in the region’s horse racing history.
It’s bill-signing time in Annapolis and Governor Larry Hogan has a lot of decisions to make by Wednesday, one of which will be whether to go forward with the ambitious plan to renovate Laurel Park and redevelop Pimlico that was passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature in March.
Under normal circumstances, it would be a no-brainer. The $389 million Racing and Community Development Act would keep the Preakness in Baltimore permanently and turn its blighted home into a sparkling new multi-use facility for an otherwise underserved neighborhood.
Of course, you’ve probably noticed by now that this is not a normal year, so it’s fair to consider whether this is the right time to embark on such an expensive venture when the state is facing the public health and budgetary disaster that is the COVID-19 virus. But there is a strong case to be made that the timing might actually be perfect.
The two-site renovation plan is not far from being shovel-ready and it would be paid for with a complicated funding formula that does not include any significant upfront money from the state’s general fund.
The long-term benefit to the racing industry in Maryland should be obvious, but an infrastructure project of this magnitude would certainly provide some local stimulus at a time when Baltimore and the rest of the state will be trying to rebound from the dire economic consequences of the pandemic.
The economic impact study that was produced last year by the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute estimates that the multi-year construction project could generate more than $900 million in economic activity and create more the 5,300 jobs. Once completed, the study projects that new and renovated facilities would annually support more than $400 million in Maryland economic activity and directly support more than 2,600 jobs.
Simply maintaining the Preakness in Baltimore, which was the driving concept behind the Pimlico/Laurel renovation plan, is projected to generate about $53 million in annual economic activity — almost all of it in Baltimore. It was this data that convinced the Maryland Senate to vote 44-1 in favor of the plan, and the House vote was a similarly lopsided 113-14.
Hogan has not signaled whether he will sign the bill, but there would appear to be little political risk in doing so, since the bill had such strong bipartisan support and the COVID-19 virus already was emerging as a major global threat when the legislation was enthusiastically passed on to him on March 18.
The $1.3 billion equine industry in Maryland supports an estimated 21,000 jobs and has been a major part of the state’s economy and culture since the 19th century. The racing component already has benefited from the purse and construction subsidies derived from casino revenues, but this plan will funnel some of that money into the bond payments that will support this project and take the sport to a new level.
Laurel Park would remain the site of year-round racing and training with a new grandstand, barns and worker housing. Old Hilltop would be ceded to the city and some of the real estate would be sold for private development, with the track facility rebuilt to accommodate not only Preakness Week, but a variety of events and year-round public use.
The other convincing argument in favor of final approval is the consequence of letting this moment pass. The deal that produced this legislation brought together a set of stakeholders with widely divergent priorities and threaded a needle that didn’t seem to have an eye two Preakness’s ago. If it falls apart now, it’s very possible that the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown really will move out of Baltimore in the next few years.