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Preakness bill expected shortly as lawmakers face angry constituents

Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — A Maryland bill forming the structure for a $372.9 million plan to keep the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and transform Laurel Park into a year-round horse racing facility is on pace to drop in a matter of weeks. Some key lawmakers, however, are still working out how to ensure a revamped Pimlico Race Course, and roughly 50 acres of private development surrounding the track, benefits residents.

The city’s lead negotiator William “Bill” Cole, a former delegate, city councilman and Baltimore Development Corp. president, said he hopes legislation setting a foundation for the projects is introduced into the Maryland General Assembly in about two weeks. Some legislators from the 41st District have discussed pursuing items, such as community benefits requirements, he said, but the deal’s scaffolding is paramount.

“Without the framework established, nothing moves forward,” Cole said.

Mike Johansen, lobbyist for the Maryland Jockey Club, in a statement, said track owner The Stronach Group, Maryland Jockey Club, Baltimore and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association negotiated “an efficient, affordable and practical concept” that keeps Preakness at Pimlico and allows for year-round racing at Laurel Park.

“The plan will protect jobs throughout the state as well as preserve 700,000 acres of green space used by Maryland’s equine industry. We presented that plan to the governor and legislative leaders for their review, and we hope the legislation is introduced shortly and approved this session,” Johansen said.

Sen. Jill Carter on Thursday, the morning after a contentious town hall meeting with residents, said she and the district’s three members of the House of Delegates are still deciding how to make sure the proposed Pimlico redevelopment includes minority business participation, local hiring requirements and a community benefits agreement.

Legislators are working to decide whether the better route to addressing those issues are through pursuing two separate bills or whether to include those items in the framework legislation. Lobbyists, Carter said, have pressured lawmakers not to pursue legislation and to instead have the community secure those items through memorandums of understanding.

“We’re very, very concerned about our community and their ability to benefit from the redevelopment of Pimlico,” Carter said.

After the city’s delegation meeting in Annapolis Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg, who has been a leading legislative advocate for keeping the Preakness in Baltimore, said he did not know when to expect Preakness legislation.

Lawmakers in his district do have a preliminary bill they’ve discussed with various community association presidents. Legislators from District 41, Rosenberg said, still need to meet with Cole and decide on a strategy to best ensure the project delivers for residents around the track.

Lawmakers from the 41st District held a town hall meeting on Wednesday night at Pimlico Elementary/Middle School filled with angry constituents. Residents unloaded on the legislators over topics ranging from crime to failing sewer lines. Many of the frustrations expressed by residents, however, also involved deep skepticism about redeveloping Pimlico.

Residents objected to using funds from state slot machine revenues intended to support new investment in the struggling Park Heights neighborhood to repay debt from the proposed redevelopment of Pimlico Race Course.

Referencing the racial divide in the district, residents worried the Pimlico proposal only benefited residents “north of the track” and not those “south of the track.”

A boy rides his bike along Park Heights Avenue past several abandoned houses. Mayor Catherine Pugh wants to create an investment fund to clean up blighted properties in struggling neighborhoods. (File Photo/Maximilian Franz)

A boy rides his bike along Park Heights Avenue past several abandoned houses. (File Photo/Maximilian Franz)

Others said they don’t believe the jobs the project is projected to generate would last. A few residents also said the contractors hired to build the racing facility and the private development would only hire “Mexicans.”

Jackie Moodie, who initially started discussing her son’s murder on Feb. 12, 2017, grew upset when legislators tried to respond to another audience member saying the contractors for the project wouldn’t hire local residents.

Those contractors would likely only hire “Mexicans,” she shouted, before quietly adding “Russians, or whatever…”, before muttering that she doesn’t hate anyone. Eventually Moodie grew upset and and directed her anger toward elected officials on stage.

“Every politician is a liar or a thief,” Moodie stood and shouted toward the stage.

As the frustration and anger in the school auditorium grew Sen. Jill Carter took the microphone and tried to assuage fears.

Legislators are working, she said, to make certain community benefits, minority business participation and local hiring requirements are part of the deal.

“No bill is yet even drafted or finalized,” Carter told residents.

After the Senate adjourned on Thursday morning, Carter said the level of anger from residents at the meeting was unusual. Town halls in the district, she said, generally draw from a broader swath of residents. But considering the history surrounding the track and nearby neighborhoods, the residents’ anger is understandable, she said.

“We’re aware there’s a lack of community input when it comes to the history of Pimlico and Preakness,” said Carter, who is currently running for Congress.

Cole on Friday said negotiators “obviously put a lot of work” into the deal. He estimated that’s he’s delivered about a dozen presentations on it so far, and that audiences have largely backed the proposal. There is one question, he said, that’s always repeated.

“How do we make certain that local residents have access to jobs and opportunities associated with the development?” Cole said.

Cole, however, doesn’t think the framework bill is the place to address those concerns. Redeveloping the Pimlico facility wouldn’t happen until 2022, he said, and private development most likely won’t happen until after 2024.

There’s a lot of public input still ahead, and any proposed development still must go through local processes for planning and zoning, he said.

Cole said that doing nothing to ensure the Preakness stays in Baltimore and that Pimlico is transformed doesn’t help the city or the neighborhoods, and failing to act leaves Baltimore in worse shape.

“Unfortunately, the alternative is nothing happens,” Cole said.

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