In a historic scene, four of Baltimore’s last five mayors gathered Thursday morning in Annapolis to urge a coalition of black legislators to join them in solidarity to help keep the Preakness in the city.
Mayor Catherine Pugh led a quartet of mayors—Sheila Dixon was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict, but submitted a letter in support—in defending the need for Baltimore to retain the second leg of the Triple Crown. The Ontario-based Stronach Group, which owns the track, has quietly disinvested in the aging Pimlico Race Course in recent years, and has been pushing to move the Preakness Stakes to its refurbished Laurel Park race track in Anne Arundel County.
“You don’t hear Louisville talking about moving the Kentucky Derby, you don’t hear about the Belmont moving the third part of the Triple Crown,” Pugh told her former colleagues in Annapolis. “Those who own race tracks invest in those communities because they believe in the neighborhood and the community. We don’t believe this family understands the impact that this would have on Baltimore.”
Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to the Stronach Group for comment.
The legislature is considering two bills, one devoting bond funds to the Stronach Group to invest in Laurel Park and a nearby training facility in Bowie, with no dollars for Pimlico, and another calling for a study into a proposed $424 million renovation of Northwest Baltimore’s 150-year-old track, a plan outlined in a 2018 Maryland Stadium Authority report.
Pugh, the Baltimore City Council and a few Park Heights community members sued the Stronach Group this week, asking a city circuit court to condemn the track, as well as the Preakness itself, and enable the city to acquire them.
Kurt Schmoke, who served as mayor from 1987 to 1999 and is now president of the University of Baltimore, likened the looming loss of the Preakness for Baltimore to the Baltimore Colts’ infamous departure for Indianapolis in 1984. City leaders attempted—albeit unsuccessfully—to negotiate with the franchise’s owners to stay put, and even tried suing after the Colts had already moved.
“The one thing that we didn’t have was legislation, actually,” Schmoke noted, alluding to a decades-old state law that says the Preakness can be moved from Baltimore “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.”
“There was no law that would prevent the movement of that team. We have such a law here now.”
Schmoke told legislators that if they could agree to support the bill for a study of a renovation plan for Pimlico, or help fight the bond legislation for Laurel Park, it could offer more time for Pugh and the city to negotiate with the Stronach family. “I think you will see that she could reach a settlement that would be to the benefit of the entire state.”
Pugh’s immediate mayoral predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the Legislative Black Caucus has a duty to look for “collective solutions” for black Marylanders, and that would include helping Baltimore and the Park Heights community near Pimlico.
She criticized the Stronach family, saying they’ve “created a situation which is difficult for them to continue at the Preakness” by underinvesting in the track, “and now they’re trying to make it Baltimore’s problem. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Former Gov. and two-term Mayor Martin O’Malley, who showed up late, followed Schmoke in referencing a major loss for Baltimore. The Red Line, nixed by Gov. Larry Hogan months after he took office in 2015, “was taken away from them in one fell swoop, with barely a whimper of opposition from a party that was in control of both chambers of this General Assembly.”
Facing the threat of the Preakness now leaving after 2020, “we see once again, the people of Baltimore, who have for 100-plus years had the equivalent of the Super Bowl hosted in our city… [are] about to be robbed of this asset just as they were robbed of the Red Line.”
He had jokes, too: “I can’t imagine another more important asset that could be dug up and taken away from the people of Baltimore unless there’s an ability to relocate the Inner Harbor to Laurel, too. Maybe that would do wonders for land values in Laurel as well.”
O’Malley noted that the Black Caucus stepped up for Prince George’s County previously to help advocate for expanding the number of casinos in Maryland, opening the door for MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill. “We did it by being together, not by cannibalizing one another.”
Lawmakers in other jurisdictions, including Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, support relocating the Preakness in hopes of getting closer to the economic boons it brings.
Caucus Chair Darryl Barnes, who represents the 25th District in Prince George’s County, noted the bond legislation doesn’t even mention Pimlico. But Sen. Antonio Hayes, of 40th District in Baltimore, and Rawlings-Blake explained that the intent of the bill is implied.
“What they’re asking the members of this caucus to do is use taxpayers’ money to rob a neighborhood that has long been neglected and move it somewhere else,” Hayes said.
Rawlings-Blake drew an analogy to legislation around the country that many have said is intended to suppress minority voter turnout, including by reducing hours for early voting on Sundays, when African-American families are in church.
Such bills don’t explicitly say, “we’re working really hard to make sure that black people don’t vote,” Rawlings-Blake said, “but when you read the legislation, and when you hear from the impacted people, the intention of the legislation becomes clear.”
Pugh and her predecessors asked that the black caucus vote to take a position in support of the legislation to study renovations for Pimlico, and against the bond bill to help the Stronachs’ other properties. The caucus didn’t vote this morning, but agreed to have a subcommittee take it up for consideration for a full vote by members.
Sen. Cory McCray told Baltimore Fishbowl afterward that it’s highly likely the caucus will vote to take a position.
Both bills have yet to be heard in committee in either house of the General Assembly. The 2019 legislative session wraps up April 9.
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