Last summer, I wrote a “Save Pimlico because. . .” column in this space. Long on sentiment and short on facts or direction, the column was supposed to make people think, to be an inspiration of some kind, to fill this space in a somewhat lively fashion, provide some context to the whole thing – oh, and beat a deadline.
Yes, the home of the Preakness is too old and broken down to continue much longer. It’s a great old place, but it’s falling apart. Of course, all things being equal, the second-oldest track in North America (1870) would be restored and treasured.
But all things aren’t equal. I knew that then, and I know it now.
“Saving” Pimlico probably won’t happen. The business side is too challenging, too expensive, too big. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That’s the point I tried to make last time. And I guess it’s the same one I’m making now.
In December, the Maryland Stadium Authority released the long-anticipated (dreaded?) second phase of its study on the track’s future. Phase One was completed in February 2017 and was more of an analysis than a plan. Phase One determined that Pimlico could indeed remain the long-term home of the Preakness, but also pointed to much-needed renovations and redevelopment.
Call Phase Two the plan. Or, more correctly, a plan. It’s one vision for the redevelopment of the racetrack and much of the surrounding area. The study presents three options – two which leave the track in its current position with a new open-air grandstand and some surrounding development. Another option goes all-in, and involves shifting the track 35 degrees clockwise so it’s parallel with Belvedere Avenue. The idea is to connect Pimlico to the surrounding community with road extensions, mixed-use facilities, recreation fields, a park, public events and more. Study organizers called this option the Palio after the famous Palio di Siena horse races in Siena, Italy.
The Palio plan is bold, includes far more than a racetrack and connects Pimlico with the Park Heights neighborhood south and to the LifeBridge Health campus to the east. The Palio plan is more of a neighborhood project than simply the creation of a new home for the second leg of the Triple Crown. Pimlico’s 110 acres would become a central part of the area, home to world-class racing in May but also to restaurants, homes, apartments, concerts, soccer games, a park, roads crossing through the actual track and anything else you might dream up.
It’s really cool. And really expensive at $424 million (gulp). But did you expect anything else? Studies like this finish with expensive visionary proposals. The stadium authority engaged industry leaders Crossroads Consulting, Populous, RK&K Engineering, Entreken Associates and Turner Construction in the study. They’ve developed some of the world’s finest public facilities – do Ascot Racecourse, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Oriole Park, Ravens Stadium and Madison Square Garden sound OK to you? Companies like this don’t undertake meaningless projects.
In short, a new Pimlico would be spectacular. Of course, the devil is in the details and the finished version of a new Pimlico might look different than the one pictured in the study. Someone has to pay for it. The consensus is some sort of public/private partnership between the state, the city, Pimlico’s owner The Stronach Group and probably more than a few others.
Sounds easy. Hah.
I’m not a city planner, but it could happen. Couldn’t it? It would take bonds and loans and tax breaks for starters. The study estimated the economic impact of a Preakness Stakes at a revitalized Pimlico to be $58.9 million a year with more than $5 million in taxes generated annually for the state and the city. Surely, that’s worth something.
It would take some sacrifice. Everybody will have to give up a little. Probably a lot.
One, forget year-round training at Pimlico. Sorry, horsemen. Laurel, perhaps a revitalized Bowie or some other training center yet to be considered will be your homes. There’s room for another version of Fair Hill Training Center – on a smaller/more affordable scale – in the region too.
Two, spend some money Maryland Jockey Club. You own the place after all. The Racetrack Facility Renewal Account, funded by slots, generated $10 million in fiscal year 2018. Some of that will need to go to Pimlico someday, and not just Laurel.
Three, yield some control everybody. For better or worse, Pimlico is a part of Baltimore. It’s more than a racetrack. Somebody negotiate a solution – tax credits, a loan, a purchase of the land by the city/state with a lease back to the MJC for operations. I’m just writing here, but there’s a formula. Work on it.
Four, find some partners. Hey, racing-minded developers (we all know you’re out there) here’s your chance to mix business with well, business.
Five, think big Baltimore and Maryland politicians. In January, Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller said the Preakness should move to Laurel. That’s the easy answer. The hard answer involves keeping the Preakness in Baltimore. I know, I know . . . the neighborhood is depressed . . . nobody wants to go there . . . it’s too dangerous . . .
But think bigger for a moment. Projects like the Palio option are what turn around city neighborhoods. The old Pimlico has long been an obstacle to change in the area. A new version would be a path. Take it.