Bill introduced to fund Pimlico, Laurel revamps
Let the games begin.
The introduction Monday of SB 987 in the Maryland state Senate has put the gears in motion, and, if the state’s Thoroughbred interests have their way, will lead to a resolution of the long-festering “Pimlico problem” by the end of the current legislative session.
The bill seeks to provide funding to overhaul Pimlico and revitalize Laurel. It is the legislative meat on the bones of an agreement crafted by representatives of the state’s horsemen; Pimlico’s owner, the Maryland Jockey Club; and the City of Baltimore.
“I thank our legislative leaders who clearly understand what this historic piece of legislation does for the City of Baltimore and for the communities surrounding the racetrack,” said Baltimore Mayor Jack Young in a statement. “The bill introduction is a critical step forward for Baltimore as it preserves the great tradition of Preakness at Pimlico and signals the commitment of significant investment in the Park Heights community.”
MJC-sponsored legislation designed to create a so-called “super track” at Laurel ran aground in 2019 amid opposition from Baltimore’s delegation to Annapolis. That legislation would have left Pimlico out of the equation altogether, but city interests marshaled their forces to prevent what many have portrayed as an economic calamity: the loss of Pimlico and the Preakness.
Following the Preakness, the sides resumed discussions and crafted a complicated agreement that looks nothing like what was on anyone’s radar screen a year ago.
That agreement – and now, SB 987 – calls for the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $375 million worth of bonds to pay for the overhaul of the two racing facilities. Of that, more than half is expected to go to making an entirely new Pimlico: leveling the existing facilities, re-orienting (and shortening) the racing strip, and creating a new grandstand/clubhouse that will also serve as a community center.
The plan also envisions knocking down and rebuilding all of the facilities at Laurel Park, where the MJC and state have spent millions in upgrades in recent years.
As described last fall by attorney Alan Rifkin, who represented the Stronach Group in negotiations, the outcome would be two facilities serving different purposes. Laurel Park would become Maryland’s everyday track and training facility, while Pimlico would serve as the “big event” facility. The Preakness would remain there.
“In partnership with Maryland’s municipalities, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, and the horsemen, we worked to identify a solution for the long-term future of the Thoroughbred racing industry and the revitalization of the Park Heights/Pimlico community,” said Belinda Stronach, Chairman and President, The Stronach Group. “We would like to thank Maryland’s leadership for their hard work, creative thinking and commitment to the sustainability of Thoroughbred horse racing in the state.”
The $17 million annual debt service on the bonds would be paid back through a mixture of funding. Some $5 million annually would come from the Purse Dedication Account, which supports racing purses in the state and is funded by slot machine revenue. The City of Baltimore is expected to kick in another $3.5 million from its share of slots revenue.
The original plan had called for the remaining funds to come from the Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account, which would have had to be extended, a move that would have reduced slots revenues available for education. Now, however, once the moneys going to RFRA sunset, the state will kick in funding from the Lottery.
The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard) for himself and 11 others, including Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), the new Senate President.
A House of Delegates version of the bill is expected to be introduced this week by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County).
Most observers have been upbeat about the legislation’s chances of passage. They point out that the dynamic that sank racing legislation in 2019 – the City versus the Stronach Group – is no longer in play, as the sides are working together. They also note the support for the bills of both the Senate President and the House Speaker.
Another factor is that the bill would pour money into Laurel Park, as well as Pimlico. That helps resolve one persistent criticism that the industry has faced – substandard living quarters for backstretch workers – as well as making the deal more attractive to suburban lawmakers.
“Laurel Park is ideally situated to become not only a major entertainment destination and an economic driver for the state, but also the most horse-friendly racetrack and training facility in America,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Pittman. “Passage of this legislation will make it happen.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican amid a sea of Democrats, has remained mum on whether he would support the bill. He has said he supports keeping the Preakness in Baltimore but has also said that the state would not “write a check for $300 million” for Old Hilltop.
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