With persisting uncertainty surrounding the future of Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore, the city and a handful of Park Heights residents and officials are taking Ontario-based track operator the Stronach Group to court, in hopes of taking over the track and the Preakness Stakes outright.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, the Baltimore City Council, 41st District Del. Tony Bridges and residents Jimmy Mitchell and Pamela Curtis filed suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court late Tuesday afternoon. In their filing, they accuse Stronach of purposefully neglecting the track in recent years while investing in its other properties, primarily Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.
Their filing quotes state law that says, “The Preakness Stakes may be transferred to another track in the State only as a result of a disaster or emergency.” By that rule, city officials and company argue, “Defendants are openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating.”
Park Heights stands to suffer from the loss of hundreds of jobs created by the race, the plaintiffs say in their filing, noting it’s an area of high unemployment, while Laurel is an area of low unemployment.
The suit asks the court to condemn the aged race track and the ownership of the Preakness Stakes so that they can be transferred to the city. If the plaintiffs get their wish, the result would effectively make Baltimore City the operator of the second leg of the Triple Crown, at least until it finds someone else to do it.
The Stronach Group said in a statement, “These actions are premature and unfounded.”
City Solicitor Andre Davis wrote in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl this morning that “we remain willing and hopeful to continue discussions with the defendants and all stakeholders to reach an agreeable resolution of our claims.”
But, he added, “There is no ‘Triple Crown’ without the Preakness Stakes and the Preakness Stakes belong in Baltimore City at Pimlico. And that is true by virtue of its long history and tradition as well as by virtue of state law. So we are hopeful that all concerned will see the wisdom in pursuing the path of restoration of the Park Heights facility to continue our great tradition as the venue for the second leg of the Triple Crown.”
Bridges, whose district includes the track, said he is formally withdrawing his name from the suit today, since the issue of Pimlico will no doubt come up in the legislature again. But he’s excited that two residents, Mitchell and Curtis, are parties on the filing, and said the legal action shows “we’re serious about the fact that there needs to be more investment in Pimlico and the community.”
Though Mitchell and Curtis hold positions with the Park Heights Renaissance, the community group’s executive director, Marcus Pollock, said in an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl that they are joining as parties in the suit as private citizens. But the group is supportive of the effort to keep the race, he said, calling it “vital” to both the Park Heights neighborhood and the entire city.
“Each year, the whole world casts its eyes on Baltimore and gives an uplift to people who need it,” he said. “We would like it to be more than once a year, but we’ll certainly take that.”
Pollack supports a $424 million plan, backed by Pugh and Baltimore Development Corporation president William H. Cole IV, to reorient the dirt oval and build a new grandstand that would offer community amenities such as 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? 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,” he said.
Bridges agrees there’s plenty of potential to redevelop the venue to include convention space, retail, a hotel or other projects.
“I think there are options and opportunities out there, we just need them to sit at the table with the city and the community to figure out what those options are,” he said.
The lawsuit asks the court to effectively block legislation being considered in the General Assembly this session for the Maryland Economic Development Corporation to issue bonds to generate up to $120 million for Stronach to invest in Laurel and Bowie, but not at Pimlico. “Predictably, the impact of the MEDCO legislation will be to dramatically reduce the RFRA funds and Racing Defendants’ funds available to Pimlico for capital improvements,” the suit says.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson and the Baltimore Senate delegation have pushed for an amendment to the “super track” bill that would require a development plan for Pimlico be presented to the Gov. Larry Hogan-helmed Board of Public Works before bonds are issued for Laurel Park. Baltimore legislators point to the Bowie Training Center, closed since 2015, saying the owners let it fall into disrepair.
Stronach now sees the Bowie property as part of its “super track” plan, saying it will be refurbished to a “world-class” training center if the bill is passed. The company told Bowie Council members just this week that it could begin construction on Laurel Park by October, and the Bowie center shortly thereafter.
Asked about the lawsuit, Ferguson told Baltimore Fishbowl, “I cannot imagine the General Assembly wanting to get in the middle of a legal fight between the City of Baltimore and multi-billion dollar foreign corporation.”
Both the bond and a competing bill backed by Baltimore leadership to create a workgroup to study financing for a proposed $424 renovation of Pimlico did not get votes in committee by Monday night’s “crossover deadline” for bills. While not a written rule, it’s generally more difficult for legislation to move through both houses and the to the governor’s desk by the end of the session if it hasn’t already made moved out of one house by crossover day.
The session wraps up April 8.