Taxpayers may fund housing at track

Laurel seeks deal to build dormitories

April 12, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Just inside the gates of Laurel Park, groomers and hotwalkers scurry about well-tended stables, pampering almost 1,000 horses next to blooming dogwoods and a shining stadium.

Behind the racetrack on a stretch of barren pavement and gravel hidden from the grandstands are the half-dozen concrete-block buildings where these workers live. Their decades-old buildings, divided into 10-foot rooms with cement floors and single light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, feel like barren, cheap motels. The homes are one more knock in hard lives that often mean rising at 3: 30 a.m. to work 10-hour days cleaning, walking and caring for horses for $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

But more than a reminder of the poor living conditions of any low-income worker, these buildings have recently become the center of an unprecedented plan to make public money available to a private corporation. Track owners are in final negotiations with Anne Arundel County and the state to build their backstretch workers new homes in a similar dormitory style -- but with air conditioning, windows, bathrooms and doors that fully shut -- all heavily subsidized by taxpayers. The track will provide land and pay for upkeep, but most of the $1.8 million in construction costs will come from county, state and federal housing grants and low-interest loans.

County officials say the plan is hardly a handout to track own- ers, who technically house for free workers they do not employ. Horse owners hire and pay backstretch workers.

"The track does gain something," said Kathleen Koch, executive director of the public, nonprofit Arundel Community Development Service, which will ante up a 40-year, $300,000 no-interest loan. "But does McDonald's pay for the housing of their workers? Housing is not normally the responsibility of industry. I wish more industries would step forward and do something like this."

Getting the plan approved has been an uphill battle as all parties, including government agencies, nonprofits and the track try to wend their way around technicalities in housing grants that were created to handle public projects -- not private ones.

State law impedes deal

One sticking point is a state law that requires housing funded by public grants and loans to be available to any low-income or homeless person who applies. The track wants the buildings -- which will be within the track gates -- open only to backstretch workers. That matter has yet to be resolved.

"There have been a lot of hurdles," said Bob DiPietro, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, "and it is taking a long time to get around them."

The idea emerged in the early 1990s when horseman Jim Ryan proposed improving conditions and setting aside some money. But for backstretch workers who live in rooms just big enough to fit in a bed and imbued with the scent of manure, new housing seems almost a fantasy.

Homes a long time coming

They refer to life beyond the track gates as the "outside" and the long hours and poor conditions they cope with as just life. Some are immigrants trying to make it in America, some are people who have spent a lifetime moving from track to track across the country, always living in conditions similar to those at Laurel.

"Sometimes when you sit in here and look around at all the white and the naked light bulb, you feel like some interrogator is about to bust in and say, `Where were you on the night of ' " said horse walker Patricia Gibson.

"We've been told for a very long time we would get new dorms, but I'll believe it when I see it," said Linda Wilhelm.

For a rent not to exceed more than one-third of a worker's income, the new dorms will house 72 people, who will share kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities. The cafeteria, where most eat now, will remain.

"I don't know who could have designed these rooms," said Jim Schimmelpfenning, who just started work at Laurel, but has been working at tracks since 1989. "Whoever did should have asked themself how someone is supposed to live here. It's just another version of a jail. Sometimes I think they treat the horses better than the people who work back here."

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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