Following a tense battle in the Maryland General Assembly and a lawsuit by the city, there’s newfound hope for keeping the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Over the weekend, The Sun reported the city and the track’s owners, The Stronach Group, had reached a deal to overhaul the state’s two primary thoroughbred racing tracks, Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.
The plans for Pimlico incorporate many of the design elements put forth in a two-part study by the Maryland Stadium Authority, reorienting the track and building a new clubhouse that would double as a community flex space. The infield would have multi-use athletic fields and a pond to the south, and a tiered berm to the north. The track would be donated to the city–freeing up acres of land to be developed–with Stronach leasing Pimlico each May to run the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
On Preakness day, The Stronach Group would spend $8-10 million to install temporary seating and suites–similar to a professional golf tournament–to accommodate crowds that, in the past, have routinely exceeded 100,000 people.
Down at Laurel, plans call for building new stalls, an all-weather track and enhanced training facilities, as well as a new clubhouse.
To fund both, the Maryland Stadium Authority would issue $348 million in bonds, to be paid back by Stronach. Nearly half of the annual payments would have to come through an extension of the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account, which draws a portion of slots revenue from the state’s casinos. The program is due to sunset in 2032, and a bill in the Maryland General Assembly would be required to extend it.
While there’s still work to be done, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young released a statement on Monday–with co-signs from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman Jr.–hailing the agreement as a “historic moment.”
“By these recommendations, if approved, we can preserve the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico for generations to come and move forward with our redevelopment plans for the Park Heights community, Sinai Hospital and the Northern Parkway corridor. I could not be any more pleased, excited or proud,” Young said.
To learn more about the deal, Baltimore Fishbowl sat down with William H. “Bill” Cole IV, the former president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation who negotiated the Pimlico talks on behalf of the city. (Full disclosure: Cole is a partner at Margrave Strategies, a consulting firm whose president, Ken Ulman, is a co-owner of Baltimore Fishbowl.)
Baltimore Fishbowl: When the Maryland Stadium Authority put out the final part of its study, Stronach didn’t necessarily seem too enthused. So what got us to this point where we have the deal?
Bill Cole: Well, they were in the stadium authority study. They jointly funded it with the city and participated in the designs that were released by the MSA last year. But they were looking at building another mammoth, old-style racing facility. And of course, we had the nasty fight in Annapolis last year, and during that fight, the city also filed suit against The Stronach Group.
It was a variety of issues, but condemnation of the Preakness Stakes, Pimlico and other assets were the main portions of the suit. We prevailed in the legislative fight. So they weren’t able to take the racing money and dedicate it to just going all-in on Laurel, which was in their plan. They wanted to consolidate everything at Laurel, make some modest improvements at Bowie, and then close Pimlico altogether and move the Preakness Stakes there. That was intolerable to the city.
When we prevailed after the session, the Stronach Group refused to have any meaningful dialogue because of the lawsuit. Mayor Young and Belinda Stronach had a conversation at the Preakness and restarted a dialogue and talked about a reset in the conversation. And one of the things The Stronach Group had maintained was that they really wouldn’t negotiate while under the threat of the lawsuit.
So the mayor instructed the city solicitor to work on a dismissal that allowed us to do a 120-day negotiating period, and then the mayor asked me to lead those discussions based on my years of working on this issue, but also understanding this is going to require a dedicated around-the-clock effort for a period of months.
BFB: So when you got to the table it was fresh?
BC: Yeah. We set out some principles at the beginning. First and foremost, the city would not accept a resolution that did not include the Preakness. So if there was a solution that had the Preakness leaving Baltimore, for any period of time, that was a non-starter. And for The Stronach Group, any solution that did not also solve for their year-round racing issues, and that is having a modern facility to be able to accommodate the state’s thoroughbred industry, was also a non-starter. So that was really the basis, and then we started trying to figure out, what are our funding sources?
And within a matter of days we realized that this was going to be virtually impossible to fund if we were trying to generate new revenues. If we were trying to create a tax or go after a sports book. We then started to look at what moneys are going into horse racing already, and can we leverage that in a different way and can we stretch it far enough to work for both Pimlico and Laurel.
And over a period of probably 60 days, we worked with architects at Populous, which had done the Stadium Authority plan too, and we started to realize that there might be a better way to do this, and a way that accomplishes the goal of keeping the Preakness at Pimlico in an events facility.
And then you have Laurel as your work horse, so to speak, your year-round track that’s doing all the training and your daily racing. During the week there’s not hundreds and hundreds of people, but you still have to have a facility to accommodate racing patrons. But it’s really important for the training and the development of the race horses there. We started realizing that we probably had enough to stretch over both.
We ended up, I think early on, recognizing that there was a path here. But it would always come down to figuring out how to make the money work, and probably 45 days ago we figured that out, and we started going back through the stadium authority to test our numbers. And they’ve done a rather rigorous analysis just to prove that we’re not tens of millions off.
And we feel pretty comfortable, particularly with a favorable bond market right now, that we’ve got more than enough to accomplish both facilities.
BFB: With Pimlico, in that first study, I think the price tag was $424 million and this calls for a little more than $375 million to do both tracks. What are the major conceptual differences between that plan and what we have now?
BC: I don’t think, when we started this process, we ever anticipated also taking down the Laurel clubhouse. But once The Stronach Group saw what a smaller, more modern facility could look like, they realized that renovating a 400,000-square-foot building to accommodate what really should be a 100,000-square-foot or less building was a fool’s errand.
So once we started thinking about new facilities, the cost started to come down. Renovating these old cavernous buildings is tough. And while they may hold sentimental value, they really have no historic value. The Pimlico clubhouse has asbestos in it, it’s quite literally falling down in parts. The grounds are 140 years old. That building has not had any meaningful capital put in in 60 years.
The biggest difference was not building a 400,000-square-foot clubhouse. That was $252 million of the $424 million from the last plan. So once you take that out, the cost came way down, and then because of that, the infrastructure costs came down. Almost the entire program changed at Pimlico.
Basically it’s just like building a shell, creating some iconic designer around it, but making certain that it is completely malleable every year. So if they’re selling more suites one year, they’re not going to build as many grandstands. And if they’re selling more grandstand seats than suites, then they build more seats.
It’s all customizable, and you’re seeing that at sporting venues around the country. Look at what’s happened at Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium, where they’ve taken out fixed seats and added these areas to mingle, to walk around. I think younger people are just digesting their sports in a different way now.
And these types of facilities, even though Laurel is is going to be a bit more traditional, allow and accommodate the changing way people are viewing sports.
BFB: As it currently sits, Pimlico also has off-track betting. Is that function gone under this plan?
BC: Nope. There will be an off-track betting parlor, and we hope they’ll put a restaurant in there to support that. And the Preakness Museum, which is a very small element. And the rest of it, for 50 weeks of the year, becomes programmable community space.
I’m really hoping that in the final plans we end up keeping that 900-seat banquet facility, because I think that’s really important. I know it drove me bonkers when my daughters went to Baltimore City high schools, that they would have their proms and their big events in the county because they couldn’t find an affordable sit-down facility to accommodate their class.
And no knock against the banquet facilities around the Beltway. But it just seemed nuts to me that we didn’t have a facility in Baltimore that was affordable, and this could be that. You could have your proms, your larger wedding receptions, class reunions. I hope it becomes that type of facility. And I also hope it becomes a meeting place for multiple communities.
One of the things that moved me, and I think has kept me so passionate about this, is that Sinai plays a role here. They had done a health disparity study and it showed that there was a 17-year life expectancy gap between Mount Washington and Park Heights. And the only thing that separated them was that racetrack. And it really gives you a pit in your stomach when you’re standing there and you realize that there’s 17 years that is determined between the geography of basically a half a mile, maybe a mile.
And what could this facility, if done properly, do to close that gap and ensure the residents of Park Heights get the same benefits of being next to an anchor institution like Sinai. And I think what you’ll find is that by rotating the track and building this new Pimlico, it’s gonna lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in Park Heights, which is jobs.
And then the community aspects of it. Right now you ride up there, and since they’re no longer doing daily racing, it’s just a fenced-off facility. There’s nothing warm about it, and it just feels like it doesn’t belong. And the new facility is being designed to fit in with the community. There’s a lot to unpack there, but the reality is this becomes a huge community amenity as opposed to a mega-facility inside Park Heights.
BFB: Talk about that a little more, reorienting the track. It was a big part of the stadium authority study. What, in your view, does that improve?
BC: I’ve had a bunch of people say, ‘well the history of the track…’ It’s been rotated and moved and shortened and lengthened. It’s the distance they run that’s important. So once you get over the concept of rotating the track and changing the dimensions ever so slightly, you realize that it opens up these incredible development parcels. Instead of having a bunch of awkward triangles, you end up with a bunch of rectangles and they become really good private development parcels.
We know that we need a hotel in Park Heights. It has nothing to do with Pimlico, it has everything to do with Sinai. But Pimlico will benefit from having a hotel there. The communities–both sides, both Mount Washington and Park Heights–have asked for a grocery store. I think by rotating the track you get a really good, big parcel to develop a 35,000-plus square-foot grocery store.
And if you really want to incorporate Park Heights into the plan, you have to make certain that the facility itself is respectful to the community. And the road grid sets up so that you can walk right into it. And the way we’ve positioned the athletic fields in the middle, you literally can walk right from Park Heights across the swing bridge across the two tracks and right into the athletic complex. I really think that if this becomes a place where Mount Washington and Park Heights meet. It eliminates that Northern Parkway dividing line that has traditionally existed.
BFB: And the city will get the land to bid out?
BC: That’ll be through the fall as we draft a bill. There will be an entity–whether it’s the Baltimore Development Corporation, whether it’s something new, whether it’s a hybrid of the city in the state–there will be some entity that will have to go through the RFP process to dispose of those vertical lots.
It won’t happen overnight because we still have to rotate the track. And during the time that Laurel is under construction, all racing will be happening at Pimlico for a year. So there’s gonna be about a 12-month period where all the thoroughbreds that are racing in Maryland will be racing at Pimlico while we get Laurel ready. And then everything shifts back to Laurel and then you work in earnest on Pimlico. But it can be done.
And one of the things we learned early on is that we never walked out saying that this was impossible. We might need to rethink it, and we might need to change the way we approach something, but we found a way to make everything possible.
BFB: Under that vision you just outlined, is there a timeline when both will be done and open?
BC: We’ve not published a timeline, and that’s to be respectful of the legislative process. Obviously everything depends upon them passing legislation. Should they do that, we genuinely believe that we can have both facilities done in three and a half to four years.
Laurel would go primarily first, although we may do some demolition at Pimlico. But you really have to solve for the year-round training first. So Laurel would be your first construction step. Clearing out the backstretch, adding that artificial surface track, adding the new barns, building the new dorm facility and then working on the clubhouse. They may also have to operate for a period of time without a clubhouse. But we think three and a half to four years from beginning to end for both facilities is a very reasonable timeline.
BFB: You mentioned possible demolition. For this year’s race, they had to close down the old grandstand. I’m guessing that won’t reopen at any point.
BC: I mean, we’ve had discussions with them. It doesn’t make any logical sense to put any money into that facility. It’s one thing we universally agree on, and that is that investing in the building that is falling down at this point is really a waste.
Now, whether or not we could do some moderate demolition of that area and put a tent in its place for this Preakness, that’s something that I think The Stronach Group will have to consider. But otherwise, it’ll just stay fenced off this year.
BFB: What is your role beyond this now that we have an agreement? Are you going to be shepherding it through General Assembly?
BC: [Laughs] That’s a great question. This is kind of hard to walk away from at this point. Because we’re working so closely–all parties, the industry, the horsemen, the breeders, The Stronach Group and the city–yeah, I probably will stay at least to get it through the legislative session and see this thing through. We’ve done phase one of the heavy lift, the legislative session is also a heavy lift. But yeah, I can’t walk away at this point. I’ll stay on for a while.
BFB: You talked a bit about the history and how the track has been oriented differently over time. But when people think of Preakness and the Triple Crown, they do think of the history of the facilities, and that’s going away. Do you think that will be hard for fans and historic preservationists to swallow?
BC: Well, I can’t answer for the historic preservationists, but from a fan standpoint, coming to a modern facility with toilets that flush is probably number one on your list. Anybody who’s walked around Pimlico–or Laurel, for that matter, despite the fact that they’ve put some money in to improve it–knows they’re dinosaurs. I mean, just big cavernous buildings. They’re just not very good in today’s modern sports complex world.
So I think that the more modern facility, with an iconic clubhouse–it’s a bit more intimate with a lot of overlay, so temporary facilities, it’s gonna be a great experience. You can literally see more under this plan. The way it’s designed, you’re going to have great viewing areas. And we think that outside of the Royal Ascot, this will be the premier place to watch a horse race from the infield.
BFB: Because of the berm?
BC: The berm, but also you’ll actually have general admission standing areas around the third and fourth turn, and I can’t think of a better place to really feel a horse race than standing along the rail as the horses come by heading down the stretch. It’s going to be a pretty cool viewing area.
The architects who have designed this and Laurel are literally the world’s best. They’re world-renowned. They did Royal Ascot. They’ve done a bunch of other really phenomenal facilities.
It’s different, so people are going to have to view it differently. You’re not going to pull up and see this massive facility anymore. You’re going to see a beautiful clubhouse, but the operations are going to be outside. We want people wandering. We don’t necessarily want them sitting in their seats the entire time.
BFB: And I know it’s still to be determined if there will be an Infield Fest. But do you have an idea of what the capacity will be for Pimlico on Preakness Day with just the seating that’s there?
BC: I will leave that to the event promoters, which is the Maryland Jockey Club. Because there’s nothing that will stop them from having the same size events they’ve had at Preakness. Nothing in our design in any way limits their overall gate. Whether or not they decide to have an Infield Fest, or whether or not they move it to a different night to make it more of a concert, that’s all up to them.
We hope–and we’ve had this conversation throughout the negotiating period–that we can restore the two-week Preakness festival that used to exist. When I was a kid, I remember there was Peewee Preakness, there were the balloon races, there were concerts, all over the region. We hope that with this new facility, the corporate business community reinvests in the event. And by doing that, we can spread out the impact over a broader period of time.
But there’s nothing in this plan that says they can’t have the Infield Fest. My strong preference would be to eliminate the running of the urinals if possible, because we’re gonna build nicer bathroom facilities with actual flushable toilets.
This interview was edited for clarity and condensed.
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