Pimlico makeover repositions racetrack as events venue, community hub

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A rendering from the Pimlico concept plan. The Maryland Stadium Authority has just recently gone out to bid for architects.

After being known for decades as the home of horseracing in Baltimore, Pimlico Race Course has the potential to take on a new role.

Instead of serving as a place for one major activity, horseracing, Pimlico can become a new multi-faceted entertainment venue that draws people with a wide range of interests, while continuing to host one of the nation’s premier sporting events, the Preakness Stakes.

Instead of being a barrier that separates Park Heights from Mount Washington, it can be a bridge that helps connect the two communities.

That’s the vision laid out yesterday by public and private officials who worked for the passage of the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020, the legislation that authorizes the state to issue $375 million in bonds for the reconstruction and repurposing of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park in Prince George’s County.

The Pimlico property at 5201 Park Heights Avenue opened in 1870 and has been home since 1873 of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. It was named after the colt Preakness, winner of the first Dinner Party Stakes at Pimlico, now called the Dixie Stakes or Dixie Handicap.

Advocates for Pimlico’s overhaul spoke about the property’s future during a Newsmaker Speaker Series talk conducted online and sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee: “A Win for Baltimore: The Renovation of Pimlico and Preserving the Preakness.”

The speakers included Bill Ferguson, president of the Maryland Senate; Nick Mosby, state delegate and candidate for Baltimore City Council president; Bill Cole IV, a partner of Margrave Strategies and former president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation and attorney Sean Malone, a partner in Harris Jones & Malone. GBC president and CEO Donald Fry was the moderator.

During the hour-long discussion, the speakers recalled the tense negotiations and behind the scenes maneuvers that ultimately resulted in funding to rebuild the grandstand and other aging facilities at Pimlico. They also outlined the benefits they hope to see once Pimlico is reconstructed.

One of the major changes to come from the legislation, Cole said, is that Maryland now has a new strategy for supporting horseracing in the state and operating the racecourses, which have been owned by the Stronach Group of Canada and will now become state property.

Under the new strategy, Laurel Park will be rebuilt to serve as the primary setting for horseracing year-round while Pimlico will be the home for the annual Preakness Stakes and all the activities leading up to it.

A separate training facility in Bowie, also owned by the Stronach Group, will no longer be used for horseracing and the property will be transferred to the state and made available for other uses.

Under this comprehensive plan, “Bowie becomes a completely different entity,” Cole said. “It’s no longer tied to horseracing. It becomes a community asset to the people of Prince George’s County.”

Laurel Park, he said. “becomes a brand new racing facility with a third racing surface, meaning that there will be a third oval integrated there” and “a brand new backstretch with state-of-the-art facilities for both people and horses,” including improved housing for racetrack employees.

From the Pimlico Concept Development Plan. The plan can be viewed at https://www.dropbox.com/s/mtaxy9buro7kybp/02%20Pimlico%20Concept%20Plans.pdf?dl=0

Once it’s rebuilt, “Laurel Park becomes your day-to-day backbone of horseracing in Maryland, with all the daily training and most of the year’s racing,” he said.

“Pimlico then becomes more of an events facility, a facility that is designed to host the marquee racing event here in Maryland, the Preakness Stakes, and obviously the Black Eyed Susan, the very important Friday race” that precedes the Preakness, Cole said.

“And then, if we’re lucky enough to ever get a Breeders’ Cup in Maryland, we could add the Breeders’ Cup to Pimlico as well, because it would be designed to accommodate the types of crowds that you would expect for a marquee horseracing event.”

In addition to accommodating horseracing, Cole said, the new Pimlico will be designed to serve as a flexible facility for many other types of events, and surrounding land will become available for additional private development.

“At Pimlico, we’re going to end up with a much smaller clubhouse, which really is an events facility year-round, a brand new racing oval that will have a dirt and a turf track, and then roughly 50 acres of private development opportunity around the track.”

Cole said many of the events at the new Pimlico could be aimed at regional audiences, but others will be for the surrounding community. He noted that the plan includes athletic fields for use by nearby residents.

“When you think about Pimlico as an events facility and drawing people there, one of things that was abundantly clear was that it needed to be a community amenity first,” he said. “You will have walking paths that will allow you to get from all of the surrounding communities into the Pimlico site in the parts of the year when there’s not horseracing. That’s important because, right now, when you drive up to Pimlico, you have 100-plus acres that are fenced off and it becomes a real barrier to connecting communities, so you have this huge divide between Park Heights and Mount Washington.

“Hopefully, with this facility, it becomes a uniting point where people come to enjoy the community amenities,” he said. “We’re hoping that the paddock area, the stabling area, becomes a great place for book fairs and farmers’ markets and for outdoor festivals – low impact, but outdoor festivals – and that the athletic fields become a place for communities all around there to come and have their kids and adults play together.”

From an economic standpoint, he said, nearby communities such as Park Heights stand to benefit because the new Pimlico will provide many job opportunities in addition to those previously created by the racing industry, and all companies on the property will be required to comply with local standards for hiring minority- and women-owned businesses.

“I think the big selling point and the big push from the city was to ensure that it wasn’t just about a race track,” Cole said. “It had to be something that complemented the amazing investments that have been going on from Sinai [Hospital] and its expansion of the campus expansion [and] the more than $100 million that has already been spent in Park Heights in the major redevelopment area with two brand new 21st century schools and a brand new recreation center, Introducing development around the Pimlico site to better connect to the surrounding communities was what made it a huge home run for the city.”

The plan was set in motion in October of 2019 when the Stronach Group struck an agreement in principle with the city of Baltimore and local horse industry groups that would keep the Preakness at Pimlico permanently.

The agreement called for Stronach to donate Pimlico and Laurel Park to governmental entities that would oversee the properties and allow Stronach to continue holding racing events there. Pimlico’s deteriorating grandstand will be demolished and replaced with a structure designed for 21st-century technology and uses.

Temporary seating will be used to accommodate crowds during Preakness Week and for other big-attendance events that might need it, then stored at other times. The track will be “rotated” 30 degrees to create parcels that can be sold for private development, the same way land was sold around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and new stables will be constructed for the horses.

In addition to 50 acres on the Pimlico property, the Lifebridge Health system controls another 20 acres nearby that it can use for expansion, further strengthening the area as a hub for economic development.

Cole said a key to making the plan work is that a state agency, the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), will be responsible for issuing bonds to rebuild Pimlico and Laurel Park and then overseeing the work. He said the stadium authority has a track record of building sports venues and meeting facilities around the state as well as the expertise needed to build a multi-purpose center at Pimlico.

“The beauty of the deal, and the part that I think was the big selling point for most legislators around the state, was that we were not basically putting $400 million into the hands of the Stronach Group,” he said.

“The key element here was introducing the Maryland Stadium Authority as the solution to our problem, where the Stronach Group and the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) become tenants to these newly constructed facilities. It made the horsemen breathe a sigh of relief because they were no longer going to be at the mercy of MJC for everything.”

The Maryland Jockey Club, in turn, “becomes a tenant at Pimlico and operates the Preakness meet,” he continued. “They become a tenant at Laurel Park at least for the first 30 years, and they give up Bowie completely. The Maryland Stadium Authority then steps in and does what they do best. They build facilities.”

Because the stadium authority is involved and must adhere to local hiring standards, he said, “we’re not at the mercy of a private developer to do this. The Maryland Stadium Authority will be doing it. In addition, the 50 acres outside of the racing facility that will ultimately be developed at the end of this project will also go through a public disposition process that ensures local participation, local hiring…I’m very confident that the people of Park Heights will have ample opportunity to participate.”

It’s essential that the community around Pimlico has a say in determining what happens with the 50 acres that will be put out for bids, Mosby said.

“This could be a huge anchor to the redevelopment of Park Heights,” he said. “The city has tried for decades to overhaul and invest in meaningful ways in Park Heights, but we know that this could literally be the spark to provide the uplift and upward mobility for the community.

“What we did not want to do was for out-of-town folks or for folks that were not connected to the neighborhood to kind of taint the trajectory or the next steps for the community,” Mosby said. “We want the community to have involvement. We want to ensure that, through any type of development process, the community will be at the table in understanding what those 50 acres look like…This is a huge opportunity for real minority equity in a community that has not necessarily seen this type of development for a really long time.”

Cole said the stadium authority recently issued a request for proposals from architects who would like to design the new facilities and that it’s also looking for legal and tax experts to work on the agreements that need to be executed.

“We hopefully will be selecting those various vendors within the next coming few weeks and then we’ll start with the real redesign of Laurel and Pimlico. There are dozens of legal agreements that have to executed,” Cole said.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to issue bonds in 2021 and start the construction at both sites. Based upon current phasing concepts, we may be able to shave an entire year off the project and do both Laurel and Pimlico virtually simultaneously. Once the experts and the construction management firm and the design firm are engaged, the MSA will have a better understanding of that.”

Ferguson, the president of the Senate, said he’s optimistic that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting downturn in the economy, won’t derail the project.

“In April and in May, I was feeling a bit nervous,” he admitted. “The casinos were shut down and not just for this particular project but for school funding as well, the casinos do provide a large chunk of funding…But when they reopened, and what we just recently saw, are the July numbers for Maryland’s casinos, and they are surpassing 2019 numbers. So I think it’s a fair assumption, now that we’ve gotten two months kind of back in, it looks like that money will continue in all likelihood to be in that ballpark.”

Ferguson said other protections have been put in place to ensure that revenue streams would be available over the duration of the construction period.

“This is not a General Fund-funded project,” he said. “This has a special fund that will be able to be bonded, and the stadium authority will use those bonds for the construction. So I feel confident that the finances will be there.”

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  1. Although I commend the people for putting a plan together to keep Pimlico open,this plan is seriously flawed from an historic viewpoint and short sighted from the tourism angle. We have the second oldest race track in the U.S.,destination for thousands of horse racing fans and home of the third most important race in the world and it is being made into a public park and hospital campus? Many locales throughout the country would kill for the potential here. The track has never been a ‘barrier’ in the neighborhood any more than the 2 stadiums and the harbor are elsewhere. Rotating or reconfiguring (read ‘destroy’) the original 1870 oval will guarantee that the Preakness will be moved before long. Besides the records lost, the ashes disturbed, the place where Seabiscuit beat War Admiral and every Triple Crown winner has had to prove himself is wiped out. I won’t even go into the science of track maintenance and what a nightmare that will be. The ‘smaller’ clubhouse reverses the promise fro a MD racing museum and the concept of open seating is already passe. Believe you me,the horsemen are not “breathing a sigh of relief” at being kicked out. Many from the northern part of our sate do not want to be at Laurel and are making plans to move to a lower tax state. This cannot be the final plan . The designer of Camden Yards knew that those old warehouses added to the appeal and was lauded throughout the country. Someone needs to wake up and see what we are about to lose here before it is too late.

  2. I agree with every thing that April Inloes Smith says. I would like to add that race tracks, and a lot of stadiums, are oriented a certain way to make the experience more pleasant for the guests by NOT having the afternoon sun in their faces! When I was a teenager, I spent half the summer in Mexico with my Spanish class. We went to the bull fights a couple of times. The cheap seats were on the sunny side. On really hot days, no one sat on that side at all. From what I can discern looking at an overhead picture of Pimlico as it is now, compared to artist renderings of the plans, guests for the Preakness Stakes will be staring into the sun for half the race. Wow, good thinking, planners.

  3. First, the article did not make clear who now owns Laurel Park. Anne Arundel County does, not the State. Unless Pittman signed it over to the state and didn’t tell us like he didn’t tell us about the deal.

    Second, Hold your horses. They can’t do this project. This entire scheme was built on the premise that they could use casino-funded programs such as the purse dedication account and what Park Height gets from slots for racetrack impact to pay the debt service on the bonds. There is nothing in either fund right now and it will take a long time to build that back up with limited capacity in casinos. Too bad they counted their chickens before they hatched.

    Third, many in and around the industry have already expressed concerns with the Pimlico plans. At meetings, in writing, in public, in blogs. Are they listening? It’s a functioning training center that is very much needed by horsemen. There is no way everyone can train and race 365 at Laurel. Can’t happen. We lost horsemen this year because of lack of stakes and 2-year-old races. They aren’t afraid to leave the state if pushed.

    MJC has NO intention of holding the Breeders’ Cup at Pimlico. Everyone knows that.

    We were promised a museum. The money for a museum at Pimlico has been sitting in the RFRA since 2015 allocated by law.

    Pimlico is 150 years old in October. Once you destroy history it’s gone forever. And without history, there is no racing, no records, no past performances, no stud book, no sireline, no tail mares, no Hall of Fame.

  4. What is the point of having a comments feature if you remove all of the comments? Lucky for you I have a Facebook fan page with 4200+ followers. And a group with 8000+ members. And 1200 followers on Twitter. You can’t silence truth. Yeah, I know, “waiting for moderation.” Sure it is. 🙄

    • We do not silence commenters. Our content management system is set up with an approval process because we have spammers, but there can be a lag on approvals based on workflow and workforce.

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