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Preakness backers pitch lawmakers on keeping race in Baltimore

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers for the first time Tuesday heard testimony on a pair of bills authorizing a $372.9 million plan to keep the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

A bipartisan group of local leaders including Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young tried to convince members of the General Assembly to back the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020 during a pair of committee hearings Tuesday.

“I think this plan puts (casino gaming and lottery) money into economic development that others have not,” Pittman told the House Ways and Means Committee.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones, who sponsored the bill in that chamber, framed the legislation as a missing piece in the Maryland horse racing industry’s rally from the brink. In order to maintain that momentum, she said, investment is needed in the roughly century-old facilities at Laurel Park and Pimlico.

“Not just because of the nostalgia for racing that comes with being a Marylander, but to protect tens of thousands of jobs,” Jones said.

The bills, however, face significant obstacles before a deal can move forward. Arguably the biggest issue in need of addressing is what to do with the Bowie Training Facility owned by the Stronach Group, which also owns Pimlico and Laurel Park via the Maryland Jockey Club.

In the Senate version of the bill the Stronach Group is compelled to convey all property within 100 feet of the banks of the Patuxent River by July 2024 to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for passive recreational uses, including hiking, picnicking and “wildlife viewing.”

The remainder of the facility then must be turned over to Bowie for use as athletic fields and to build a 50,000-square-foot structure. In turn the city must approve a joint-use agreement for those athletic fields with Bowie State University.

That condition is opposed by the Stronach Group, and the House version of the bill only requires the owner to maintain the property for safe use and establishes a task force to study potential future uses for the property.

Questions also remain about how to fund improvements to the race track at the Maryland Fairgrounds in Timonium. Legislators who represent the area want to use money from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account to fund those improvements.

Those monies, however, are a key part of the plan to pay for improvements at Laurel Park and Pimlico. State law dictates that 80% of those funds go to Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, with the remaining 20% going to other tracks like Ocean Downs Raceway.

Del. Michele Guyton, D-Baltimore County, has sponsored legislation for the second straight year that provides $350,000 from the account for improvements to the fairgrounds track from fiscal year 2021 through fiscal year 2025.

Lawmakers also questioned the amount of private funds in the deal, whether there would be money to pay for improvements at the track at the state fairgrounds in Timonium, as well as how to improve living conditions for workers at the track.

Joe Bryce, a lobbyist for the Stronach Group and Maryland Jockey Club, said the estimates for the project’s cost are based on previous Maryland Stadium Authority studies.

“What we’re giving you is what we hope is on the high end,” Bryce said.

The bills allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $375 million in debt to renovate Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the Preakness Stakes, and to pay to transform Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County into a year-round racing facility.

That debt is secured by pledging $17 million annually from the Maryland Lottery Fund to repay bonds issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority. A portion of the money from the lottery fund will be repaid with dollars from slot machine revenues slated for community improvements in Baltimore and the horse racing industry.

The bill dictates that the balance of the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account for thoroughbred racing tracks, as of May 31, 2020, go to the Racing Community Development Fund used to pay for the project’s expenses. A fiscal analysis of the House bill estimates that amount will total $23.6 million by this spring.

Funds reimbursing the lottery for debt payments will at first come from the Racetrack Facility Renewal Account. On average those funds would contribute $8.5 million annually toward reimbursing the Maryland Lottery Fund.

Starting in 2026, however, those monies start to sunset and would completely be phased out by 2035. As a result, lottery revenues would cover the $8.5 million annual difference starting in 2033 until the bonds are paid off in 2051.

Supporters of the plan to overhaul Pimlico and Laurel Park said how, and if, the Maryland Lottery Fund is reimbursed for covering the debt is a decision for the General Assembly.

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