01/18/2006 1:00AM

County gives Laurel permission for commercial development

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The Anne Arundel County Council in Maryland on Tuesday gave the owner of Laurel Park permission to create a multimillion-dollar commercial district at the Thoroughbred racetrack.

Precise details of the proposed project remained unclear even after the council approved the bill, 5-2. Officials of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns both Laurel and Pimlico Race Course, said that the development could include restaurants, retail shops, and a hotel.

The MJC, a majority of which is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., has been aggressively lobbying the state legislature, so far unsuccessfully, over the past four years for approval to operate slot machines.

At a news conference on Tuesday before the council vote, the jockey club's president, Joe De Francis, said that the development would keep the racetrack economically viable. De Francis stressed, however, that plans for Laurel remain conceptual and that he had little to offer on the look, size, and cost of the redevelopment.

"The vision would be a new clubhouse-grandstand-entertainment facility, ideally with slots, along with mixed-use retail. . . . If we have slots, we will have a hotel," De Francis said.

County Executive Janet S. Owens, who voted for the proposal, said shops, pubs, and restaurants would provide vital services to residents in the western edge of the county, on the heels of a military job boom at nearby Fort Meade.

Magna officials see the expected influx of at least 15,000 defense workers to the Fort Meade Army post as a potential base of new customers.

Magna officials in recent months had said that further redevelopment of its Maryland tracks would be predicated on the approval of slot machines, but De Francis appeared to back off that assertion.

"I wouldn't want to say that it's predicated on slots," De Francis said. "The speed to which this is executed is greatly impacted by slots. Without slots, this is a very long-term solution."