02/24/2017 7:03PM

State report says Pimlico needs $300-million renovation

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Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore would need approximately $300 million in renovations to be “economically competitive” with the two other tracks that host Triple Crown races - Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and Belmont Park on Long Island, New York - according to a report released Friday by the Maryland Stadium Authority, a state agency.

The report, which was funded by the authority, the non-profit Baltimore Development Corp., and Pimlico owner The Stronach Group is expected to launch a broad discussion on the future of Pimlico and the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Those discussions will likely involve representatives of the state, the city of Baltimore, and The Stronach Group over whether taxpayer money should be used to fund all or a part of the track’s restoration.

Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer for The Stronach Group’s racing division, said Friday afternoon after the report was released that the company would not be willing to substantially renovate Pimlico along the report’s recommendations without public assistance, citing the limited number of days the company operates the track and the track’s slim operating margins.

“It’s a big number, and there’s going to have to be a big commitment from the city and the state,” Ritvo said.

Although the report includes sections on both “essential improvements” and “non-essential improvements,” the authors of the report state that “given the age and state of the facilities at Pimlico, we do not believe that a piecemeal renovation approach will deliver the desired result of resolving [the track’s] challenges, nor would such an approach be feasible given the extent of work required.”

The report’s recommendations, if implemented, would be a massive undertaking for a track that has long been considered antiquated and run down, especially for a facility that hosts a Triple Crown race. In addition to its lack of aesthetics and its clear signs of age, the track has suffered from structural problems – its toilets stopped working at the 2015 Preakness because of a local water-pressure problem – and it has limited options to draw well-heeled patrons because of its lack of permanent first-class amenities. 

The track is also located in a distressed area of Baltimore, though the report notes that despite higher crime rates in the neighborhood than in other parts of the city, “there have been very few reported incidents affecting Preakness attendees,” in part because “residents of the neighborhood welcome visitors to the Preakness as they generate incremental new economic impact” through parking fees and informal food and beverage sales.

The report acknowledges that because attendance at the Preakness has nearly doubled since 2009, to a record 135,256 last year, “it is difficult to make the argument that Pimlico’s location and/or facilities are detrimental to the Preakness.” However, the report states, “as host venue for such a large and prominent public event, Pimlico Race Course is antiquated and in need of substantial renovations.” The vast majority of its attendees are crammed into the track’s infield, where marketers have nurtured and encouraged the race’s wild outdoor-party vibe.

The Preakness, which was first held in 1873, is likely to be a significant lever in any negotiations directing taxpayer funds to the track. Although state law says that the race cannot be moved to another track except in the case of “a disaster or emergency,” Stronach Group officials have released trial balloons in the past about relocating the race to its suburban sister track, Laurel Park, or other tracks owned by The Stronach Group outside of Maryland. The suggestions have been met with immediate pushback by Maryland and Baltimore elected officials.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said Friday morning that she welcomed the report’s implication of a public-private partnership to fund a renovation of the track.

“We’re going to do whatever is necessary, because it creates jobs and opportunities, especially for people who live in the neighborhood,” Pugh said, according to the Baltimore Sun. “We will do everything we can to ensure the Preakness stays in Baltimore.”

Financial constraints may have a significant impact on the discussions. Baltimore is facing a $130 million budget shortfall for public-school funding, and the city has already approached state lawmakers about addressing the gap, claiming the state owes it $260 million.

In addition, The Stronach Group has spent millions of dollars over the past several years renovating Laurel Park without spending much in the way of renovations at Pimlico, despite receiving tens of millions of dollars in subsidies each year from the state’s casinos, a portion of which is dedicated to capital improvements. This year, it slashed the live racing dates at Pimlico from 28 to 12, moving the dates to Laurel instead.

The report released Friday was only the first phase of the $280,000 study. The second phase would contain specific recommendations on how to re-develop Pimlico and its property and structure deals providing public assistance, according to Ritvo.

Ritvo said that the importance of the release of the first phase of the study was its ability to focus the conversation on how to ensure the Preakness stays in Maryland.

“The good thing is that no one is kicking the can down the road anymore,” Ritvo said.