Justify’s sprint to win the Belmont Stakes and capture the Triple Crown last Saturday was remarkable and uplifting. It once again reminds us of just how fortunate Baltimore is to be home to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness.
As such, Baltimore has the distinction of hosting one of the most heralded sporting events in the United States, if not the world. It is an annual “Super Bowl” for Baltimore generating an infusion of visitors and a multi-million dollar boost to the local and regional economy.
But each year were are reminded by the track owners, local, national and international press of the woeful shape of Pimlico Race Course, the venue for this valuable and storied sporting event. In an article published on the eve of this year’s Preakness, a USA TODAY reporter went so far as to describe the facility as a “dump.”
Whether you agree with such harsh assessments or not, the bottom line is that the Preakness needs and deserves a modern, premier destination venue that generates a high-level of enthusiastic national news coverage, provides superior guest experiences and showcases Baltimore to the world in the best light possible. Unfortunately, in its current state, Pimlico Race Course falls short of that goal.
Leaders in city and state government, the business community and Pimlico’s owners, The Stronach Group, have been debating the vexing issue of Pimlico’s future for many years, kicking the can down the proverbial road.
The Stronach team has expressed a desire to move the Preakness to its Laurel Park horse racing venue. Maryland law – which requires the Preakness to be run at Pimlico barring an emergency – has prevented this from happening. Some have questioned whether the unwillingness of the track owners to invest in Pimlico is an effort to allow the facility to deteriorate to a point that an “emergency” situation could be met.
Stronach has balked at investing significant funds in the Pimlico site. Recently, speaking of future plans for improvements to the track, Tim Ritvo, Chief Operating Officer for Stronach, said, “We’ve made it pretty clear that we’re not going to put any funds into it.”
What he didn’t mention is this: There is a designated source of state dollars to make infrastructure improvements to Maryland race tracks, the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account (RFRA). It is funded through a share of gaming revenues that the casinos must pay the state. Race track owners can apply for specific projects, such as new barns or elevators. Maryland Racing Commission records show that since 2012, $31.5 million in RFRA funds has been sought by Stronach for improvements at Laurel Park. Meanwhile, Stronach has only sought $2.7 million for improvements to Pimlico.
As a private company, Stonach, the track’s owners, can determine how to spend its money. But it is also clear that they have made a choice not to take full advantage on Pimlico’s behalf of an existing funding source that was established by the legislature and approved by state voters to help maintain and improve the facilities.
This aside, we need a clear and visionary way forward.
The Pimlico Race Course Phase 2 Study, which the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) launched Tuesday with a public hearing with community residents, may hold the key.
A description of the study states “Rather than focusing strictly on the needs of the Preakness Stakes, the proposed improvements and/or redevelopment should consider year-round use” of Pimlico.
A priority of the study must be ensuring that Baltimore remains the home of the Preakness with its storied sporting history for many decades to come. Without a doubt, the Preakness belongs in Baltimore.
The MSA study, due to be completed by the end of the year, provides a golden opportunity to develop a vision for a renewed Pimlico that draws visitors and their spending power to the city year-round, generates new revenue for the owner, provides added tax dollars for the city and state, and creates vital jobs and investment for nearby communities, like Park Heights.
To make this possible, Pimlico must be reimagined as a venue that provides non-racing entertainment, along with horse racing, with an emphasis on providing new and emerging activities that appeal to today’s audiences.
The regional business community and city leaders will need to rally support from the Governor and state legislature to approve a final plan and fund improvements, which could cost an estimated $300 to $500 million. This will require a new public-private partnership including support and investment from the Stronach group.
In short, the MSA and city and state leaders need to think big and everyone must support a bold, transformative vision so that Pimlico can emerge as an exciting national entertainment destination, providing new economic and employment opportunities, transforming Park Heights and other nearby communities, and benefitting the city and state for decades to come.
Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.