Council Delays Vote On Bill For Track Dormitories

Comment To Be Sought Before Final Action

April 23, 1997|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

After minor amendments were adopted last night, the Anne Arundel County Council delayed a vote on legislation that would have cleared the way for funding for new dormitories to house workers who groom and exercise thoroughbreds at Laurel Park and live year-round on the backstretch.

Because the bill was amended, the council has to seek public comment on the measure before it can take a final vote.

But one councilman questioned the need to spend federal and state dollars on a private enterprise.

"This is private land, a private facility," said Councilman William C. Mulford III. "It's a little city. It's been set up really to serve the people, not the animals."

But several community leaders last night spoke in favor of replacing the dilapidated housing.

Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association, said residents have wanted to see the backstretch housing "cleaned up" for years.

"Who has to pay for it, that's really not our concern," he said.

The council could vote on the legislation in May.

A coalition that includes track management, a nonprofit community development organization and philanthropist and developer Jim Ryan wants to build the housing with a $1 million loan through the state and $300,000 federal deferred loan through the county.

Another $450,000 would come from the Federal Home Loan Bank, and the Ryan Family Foundation has made a $100,000 donation.

The money would pay for two two-story buildings with 18 one-room units and a recreation room in each building. Unlike the current housing, each room would have a full bathroom and air-conditioning. The plan calls for six buildings to be built eventually on land owned by the track across the street from the stable area.

Robert DiPietro, president of the real estate division of the Maryland Jockey Club, part-owner and manager of Laurel Park, has defended the plan to use public loans to build the housing.

"We're trying to do something that's not on the public's back," DiPietro said. "This is not any subsidy from the county and the state. There's no stadium authority building parking lots or grand stands."

But on a recent morning at the track, backstretch workers had mixed reactions to the proposal.

At midmorning, most workers were finished grooming and exercising the horses and some were relaxing outside their rooms in the squat cinder block dorm buildings.

"I think this is great," said longtime resident Linda Wilhelm, perusing a brochure for the Laurel Commons housing for the first time. "And laundry! Yes!"

Wilhelm has lived in a room on the backstretch since the 1970s, when women were first allowed. She started working at Laurel at 16, galloping horses, and since has been a groom and now is a hot walker for the horses. In the job, she walks horses after their workouts to cool them off.

She said she would be willing to pay rent, especially for the luxury of washers and dryers in every dorm. Wilhelm said she tries to catch rides at seemingly jacked-up rates of $5 and $10 to laundromats on U.S. 1 or Route 198.

She offered to show a reporter and a photographer her room, but DiPietro would not allow it. He said track policy forbids letting reporters inside the quarters.

Laura Ahlgren, 41, also a hot walker, likes the life she has established in the old dorms. She works for trainer Dale Capuano.

"I've taken in a bunch of stray cats, and I'm sure they're not going to appreciate that in a new place," said the four-year resident of the backstretch. "And I can't complain too much about something that's free."

"God knows the horses come first," Ahlgren said, referring to the stables some say are better accommodations than the dorms. "I guess I consider it a compromise."

Thoroughbred owners and trainers welcome the idea of better housing for their employees as long as the workers can still get to work easily, according to Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association.

"Access to the stable area would be quite a ways aways," he said of the proposed site across Brock Bridge Road from the backstretch. "They in essence live right next door to where they work right now."

But DiPietro said the track would open a second entrance to the backstretch area closer to the new housing.

Project officials hope to begin construction within two to three months and take in the first of about 70 residents by the end of the year.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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