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Frank S. Turner: Pimlico isn’t just Baltimore’s problem

Delegate Frank Turner, D-Howard

Frank S. Turner

I find it somewhat ironic that a study developed by the Maryland Stadium Authority with the input of The Stronach Group, Baltimore City officials, and the general public about the future of racing and the cost of reviving Pimlico Race Course can be so easily minimized.

The Maryland racing industry is much larger than Pimlico and the Preakness. There are approximately 21,000 jobs that directly or indirectly depend on this industry. Maryland has hundreds of breeding farms, boarding stables, dressage stables, horse leasing stables, horse trainers, jockeys and more that depend on this industry.

According to a report published by the American Horse Council, there are over 101,000 horses in Maryland, and the economic impact of this industry is estimated at $1.3 billion. The report further states that approximately 750,000 acres are used for horse-related purposes.

Without this industry, this land and open space could be replaced with apartments, townhomes, and strip malls. The loss of this beloved industry would worsen congestion on our roads, expand the need for more schools and increase our regional population.

One of the first controversial votes I took as a member of the House of Delegates was to build a $220 million Ravens stadium in Baltimore. I found little support for voting for the Ravens stadium in my home district in Howard County. While listening to the debate and before the vote, Governor Parris Glendening called me on the House floor and asked for my vote.

I always thought my vote for the Ravens stadium was a vote for everyone throughout Maryland regardless of where someone lived.

The Ravens stadium is now 25 years old, and the cost would be substantially higher if the stadium were to be built today.

Tellingly, the owners of the Ravens have put another $110 million into the stadium over the last several years for upgrades in order to maintain an excellent fan experience.  In the horse racing industry, Churchill Downs in Kentucky notably invested $121 million in upgrades in 2005 to keep its facility current and attractive.  Both of these are examples of investing in facilities in an ongoing basis, rather than kicking the can down the road.

Had a sustained investment been made over the 149 years of Pimlico’s existence, the track would not have deteriorated into the physical obsolescence we see today. Clearly, the former and current owners have not invested in Pimlico. At some point, much like an old broken car, the cost of repair exceeds the benefit.

Showplace for racing

It has been suggested that the Maryland Stadium Authority proposal’s to renovate Pimlico is excessive, and a temporary or less-than-upscale track at Pimlico could be built.

That might be satisfactory if the facility was not part of the Triple Crown. After seeing the facility upgrades at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, I do not believe the owners or the general public want a second-class Pimlico racetrack. Wherever the track is located, the track should be a showplace for racing.

The cost of a new track at Pimlico suggested by the Maryland Stadium Authority’s study — $424 million — would be a high-ticket item in any state’s budget at a time when there are so many other needs. Understandably, that money could be used for improving public safety, education programs, job training, summer youth programs, computer upgrades, reduction of the number of vacant houses and a myriad of other priorities for the state of Maryland.

We must set priorities and wisely use the taxpayers’ dollars.

One of the most contentious debates is whether the Preakness should remain in Baltimore or move to Laurel.  Without a legislative change, the race will remain in Baltimore. However, there are two other possibilities. The legislature could allow the Preakness to run in Laurel, or the owner could move the race to Laurel without legislative approval. Either scenario will leave people unhappy.

It has been alleged that moving the Preakness would cost Baltimore millions of dollars. However, the finest hotels are located in Baltimore and will continuously be occupied by visitors that attend the Preakness.

Furthermore, there are no upscale restaurants in Laurel and there is no night life in Laurel. Entertainment and night life are dominated by Baltimore.

During my time in Annapolis, there was a continual theme in addressing our state’s priorities: one Maryland. We need to address this issue as one Maryland.

Frank S. Turner is a former member of the House of Delegates from Howard County and a former chair of the Ways and Means financial resources subcommittee.