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Odell Knox, owner of Knox's Barber Shop on Park Heights Avenue, remembers better days in the neighborhood. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

As Preakness approaches, Pimlico area hoping for better days

Odell Knox, 72, a soft-spoken man with thick-rimmed glasses, sits in his barbershop. Along with a liquor store, it is the only business open in this block of Park Heights Avenue on a Wednesday morning. There are no customers around. The only person in sight is a young man leaning against the front of the liquor store, smoking a cigarette, looking down the street past a lamp post adorned with a banner reading “Bold New Heights.”

Sitting across from a black-and-white picture of Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands with Malcolm X, Knox talks about the community’s decline over the 43 years since he opened shop. He fondly recalls when Pimlico Race Course regularly drew large crowds, when the legendary old Pimlico Hotel served some of the best crab cakes in the city and when the neighborhood’s most thriving businesses weren’t liquor stores.

“I’d love to see this neighborhood the way it used to be. It used to be a lovely neighborhood,” Knox says.

This Saturday, people across the country will watch the running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, and although the track is only blocks away from Knox’s shop, it’s a safe bet NBC won’t be airing footage of the neighborhood other than from a blimp hundreds of feet above.

Baltimore is hoping the money dedicated to the community from slot machine revenue will eventually create a thriving urban neighborhood that broadcasters will want to show off on national television. But some neighborhood residents and community leaders are growing impatient. They want to see results. Now.

Thomas Stosur, director of the Planning Department and chairman of the Pimlico Community Development Authority, says the city between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2014 has budgeted about $9 million for the greater Pimlico area. Of that amount, 75 percent is dedicated to the Park Heights Master Plan area and the rest for community projects within a one-mile radius of the racetrack.

He estimates that between $3 million and $4 million of those funds already have been spent.

In a formula established in the law authorizing slots, 5.5 percent of revenue from the machines at casinos in Anne Arundel County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore are dedicated to “local impact aid.” The Pimlico area is supposed to receive 18 percent of that total for the next 18 years, except for $1 million dedicated to the area near Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County.

“We’ve been budgeting more conservatively so that we know what we budget we can actually, for the most part, count on coming in, and so even today as we look forward out, we’re kind of doing a 10 percent reduction from what the so-called official state estimate is to what we’re typically budgeting,” Stosur says.

Where the money’s going

Park Heights Renaissance CEO and President Julius Colon isn’t one of the people wondering if the slots funds are being used wisely. He says he can see the money at work all around him. On a Wednesday morning, Colon eagerly shows off the $9 million Renaissance Garden, an affordable housing development for seniors.

The brand new building has 60 one-bedroom units and amenities such as a beauty parlor, a common area with a fireplace and a library. It’s a stark contrast from when the land was home to “The Ranch,” a public housing development notorious for drugs and violence.

Park Heights Renaissance, which is helping implement the Park Heights Master Plan, including economic and land development, receives funding for administrative costs from slots revenue.

In five years, the organization has been involved with a wide range of projects. It is buying the old St. Ambrose Catholic School building so it can be leased to a charter school affiliated with Roland Park Country School. It helped Gaudenzia, a nonprofit that works with people affected by chemical dependency and mental illness, to start constructing an 18-unit building for single mothers and their children. It arranged to turn the site of another former troubled public housing project into an artificial turf football and baseball field with $1.1 million in slots funds.

“This is where the slots money is going,” Colon says.

Fielding ‘so many’ complaints

But not everyone is so sure about the progress being made. It’s been several years since the Park Heights Master Plan was approved. Voters in Maryland passed slot machine gaming in 2008.

Del. Jill Carter, who represents the area and voted against legalizing slot machines, is critical of the way the city has handled the money so far. She says that legislators will work to see the city is more efficient in getting the money to surrounding communities.

“We’ve had so many complaints from various community groups and individuals, even though we did our jobs as legislators to make sure the money is there for the community. … If it’s not going where it’s supposed to go, if it’s not being utilized or if it’s not getting to the communities that need it in a timely fashion, then it’s not serving its purpose,” Carter says.

Stosur says it may be difficult for the average resident to understand the process the city has to go through to approve the spending of funds. He points out the city only started receiving slots money in 2012.

“Whenever there is a new source of significant funding that comes on the table, there’s a lot of expectations that are out there by a host of different parties, community groups, other stakeholders, sometimes elected officials” Stosur says.

But try telling that to someone like Knox. He has agreed to sell his building at 4806 Park Heights Ave. and relocate to another area in the community as part of a city plan to demolish properties in the 4600 to 4800 blocks of Park Heights Avenue to make way for a mixed-use development. He says the changes can’t come soon enough.

“I can’t wait.”