City withdraws lawsuit seeking control of Pimlico, says Stronach willing to talk keeping Preakness in Baltimore

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The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly three months after taking the owners of Pimlico Race Course to court over the 149-year-old track’s deterioration, as well as their plans to move the second jewel of the Triple Crown to Laurel Park, the city has withdrawn its lawsuit against the Ontario-based Stronach Group and its subsidiary, the Maryland Jockey Club.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the city moved to withdraw its case in Baltimore City Circuit Court today “following a productive discussion” with the company’s chairman, Belinda Stronach. He said they talked about resuming “good faith negotiations” about revitalizing the track.

The city asked the court in March to condemn Old Hilltop and the trademarks of the Preakness Stakes so they could be transferred to Baltimore’s control, which would have effectively made the city a race track operator.

“I am pleased that we have reached this withdrawal agreement and standstill with the Maryland Jockey Club and The Stronach Group to give the parties an opportunity to discuss Pimlico and racing in Maryland,” Young said in a statement this afternoon. “The City is committed to keeping the Preakness in Baltimore and I look forward to working with the Maryland Jockey Club and The Stronach Group on good faith negotiations toward a positive outcome for the Park Heights community and the City of Baltimore.”

City Solicitor Andre Davis filed the lawsuit on behalf of then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, the Baltimore City Council, 41st District Del. Tony Bridges and two Park Heights residents in March.

It alleged the Stronach Group purposefully neglected Pimlico for years as it invested in its other tracks–primarily Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County—and was breaking a state law requiring the Preakness to be held at Pimlico every year unless there’s “a disaster or emergency.”

They also alleged the company was threatening the loss of hundreds of jobs for an high-unemployment area of Northwest Baltimore while adding jobs in Anne Arundel County.

The mayor’s announcement included a brief statement from Belinda Stronach: “We appreciate the withdrawal of the lawsuit and look forward to working with Mayor Young and his representatives, along with the state and other stakeholders.”

Speaking with Baltimore Fishbowl by phone, Bridges said he’d “rather see a solution where we all come to the table and it’s a win-win for everybody”–everybody being the operators of the track as well as the neighbors.

“I want to see the race stay, but I also want to see something that opens it up to the community and makes economic sense for both the community and the race course,” he said. That could include adding new jobs, retail, a hotel to the facility. “Let’s put it all on the table.”

He noted the city has withdrawn, but not entirely dropped its case, and could still go back to court if negotiations fall apart. However, “I think we’re all acting with good faith on this one,” he said. “I hope we are.”

When the city sued in March, the Stronach Group had been lobbying state legislators to back a bill that would have authorized the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) to issue $120 million in bonds to build Laurel Park into a “super track,” enabling it to host the Preakness. But the bill died after the city’s House delegation signaled it would vote against it.

City leaders have instead endorsed a $424 million plan proposed by the Maryland Stadium Authority to rotate the dirt oval track, build out a new grandstand with amenities like meeting rooms and a pavilion for outdoor concerts and a farmers’ market on non-racing days.

“What if we were to create a destination venue up there?” posed Park Heights Renaissance executive director Marcus Pollock in an interview this spring. “I bet you would have folks coming from as far away as Pennsylvania to take part of that, especially if you have cultural and other amenities.”

After the General Assembly session, the track operator’s attorney, Alan Rifkin, moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing only the state—not the city—has jurisdiction over racing events, and that the city could not use eminent domain as a way to take control of the track and race.

Young said during this year’s Preakness–at which nearly 7,000 seats in the deteriorated grandstand were decommissioned due to safety concerns–that the city had no plans to withdraw its lawsuit. “I want to force that conversation,” he told the Baltimore Business Journal. “Even though there is a lawsuit, we still can talk. That’s what I’m trying to do now.”

With the lawsuit now withdrawn, Rifkin said in a statement today that the Maryland Jockey Club “will be continuing our dialogue with the City Solicitor’s Office to arrange for these important discussions.”

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
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