Four Baltimore mayors press black caucus to help keep Preakness in city, block bill benefiting Laurel Park

Baltimore continued its full-court press Thursday to preserve Pimlico Race Course and keep the Preakness Stakes in the city, as current and former mayors lobbied the state’s black lawmakers to join the cause.

Mayor Catherine Pugh and three former mayors — Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Martin O’Malley and Kurt Schmoke — urged members of the Legislative Black Caucus to help block legislation that would enable the owner of Pimlico to accelerate its plans for a “super track” at Laurel Park.

Pugh and others fear that if The Stronach Group gets the state’s help in issuing bonds using state money for the work at Laurel Park, it will result in the relocation of the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, from Baltimore to Laurel.

The mayors compared the potential loss of the race to the Baltimore Colts football team leaving town in 1984 and the cancellation of the proposed Red Line light rail project across Baltimore in 2015.

“This is a big threat to our city,” Pugh said at a Thursday morning meeting of the black caucus in Annapolis. “This is the second jewel of the Triple Crown. You don’t hear Louisville talking about moving the Kentucky Derby. You don’t hear about the Belmont moving.”

The black caucus has 57 members — about 30 percent of the legislature — and therefore would be a significant ally to the city. The group did not make a decision Thursday, electing to have its legislative review subcommittee consider the matter before bringing it to a vote of the full caucus.

The Stronach Group, which did not participate in the meeting, issued a statement: “We appreciate that the future of Pimlico and Preakness is a passionate topic, and it’s not surprising that those who have led the City over the years feel the passion and contributed to the conversation. As we have said repeatedly, we are open to discussions with the City leadership to seek solutions. But to date, we have not seen a plan from the City or State on how to pay for it.”

The Maryland Stadium Authority drew up a plan for a redeveloped track with additional uses, but did not suggest how to pay for the $424 million proposal. Stronach has been unwilling to commit any money to renovating the aging track in Northwest Baltimore, instead spending most of its share of state casino revenue on Laurel.

Pugh said Baltimore officials had been in discussions with Stronach, and thought they had worked out a deal to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, though she declined to provide details.

Pugh filed a lawsuit against Stronach this week, seeking to block any move of the Preakness and prevent the company from using state bonds to finance renovations at Laurel Park.

Stronach Group officials requested the bill as a way to fulfill the company’s vision for a “super track” at Laurel that could attract a broader clientele and perhaps a big-name race such as the Breeders’ Cup.

Some black caucus members — especially those from Baltimore — were aligned with the Baltimore mayors.

“I don’t know how anyone can support this legislation,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, chairwoman of Baltimore’s House delegation.

She said the loss of the Preakness would be akin to a meteor striking Park Heights, a neighborhood surrounding the track.

Sen. Antonio Hayes, chairman of Baltimore’s Senate delegation, said it’s inappropriate for a private company to use state money “to rob a neighborhood that has long been neglected.”

The bonds would be issued by the Maryland Economic Development Corp. and paid back from the state’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal Fund, which gets its money from a portion of slot machine proceeds.

Other lawmakers from different parts of the state asked for more information about the Pimlico and Park Heights neighborhoods surrounding the track, and how they would be affected by the loss of the Preakness.

The mayors have allies in Baltimore County’s House delegation. Fourteen of the county’s 23 delegates signed a letter Thursday opposing the bill that Stronach is seeking to accelerate Laurel’s renovation.

Stronach’s plan “runs contrary to the stated intent of the General Assembly, which recognizes the rich history of the Preakness and its ties to Baltimore,” the county delegates wrote in the letter, which was sent to the chairs of the committee and subcommittee considering the bill.

Several Baltimore City and Baltimore County lawmakers who are not members of the black caucus observed Thursday morning’s meeting. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon could not attend the meeting because of a conflict, but she wrote a letter to the caucus supporting the city’s cause, Pugh said.

Rawlings-Blake said that the black caucus was meeting in a room where lawmakers gather to find solutions to problems, not to allow “foreign companies to use state money to pit one jurisdiction against another.”

Schmoke, now the president of the University of Baltimore, said there doesn’t have to be a choice between Laurel and Pimlico. Both can thrive, he said.

“The Preakness is a unique entity and there’s still an opportunity for the group to upgrade, if it wishes, Laurel. But the Preakness is so unique,” he said.

Schmoke said if lawmakers can put the legislation that would benefit Laurel on hold, then it would give Baltimore officials time to negotiate with the Stronach Group.

O’Malley spoke of a city whose residents have survived “invasion, bombardment, hard times, fires, floods, and of late have been a people who have had to suffer, time and again, the political hurts of having things that are very valuable to them taken away.”

O’Malley said the Stronach Group, through its legislation, is setting the city up to be “robbed” of a valuable asset.

“I can’t imagine another more important asset that could be dug up and taken away from the people of Baltimore,” the former governor said. “Unless there’s an ability to relocate the Inner Harbor to Laurel, too.”

pwood@baltsun.com

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