Elaborate plans could revitalize Laurel Park

Refurbishment part of track's bid for aid

June 13, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Owners of the Laurel Park racetrack will announce plans tomorrow for a $16.8 million expansion and overhaul, the largest in the 85-year history of the sagging facility.

The refurbishment would take three years and include the addition of at least 200 new horse stalls, a catering operation, new dormitories for workers and renovation of the nearby commuter rail station.

Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the racetrack, also discussed more elaborate plans in recent presentations to Anne Arundel County legislators and area residents. Those raised the possibility of bigger changes: road closures, construction of a new training oval and the purchase of nearby vacant fields to add as many as 400 stalls.

If realized in full, the project could drastically alter the landscape of the county's boundary with Howard County, where the aging racing complex has done little to help elevate a ragtag mix of bars, shopping centers and empty lots.

"This is where the future of this county is," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Arundel Democrat who looked at the proposal last week. "The time is right for them to be expanding."

The overhaul was born of legislation passed this year that required De Francis to present the governor with detailed plans for his Laurel and Pimlico racetracks by Tuesday if the Jockey Club is to receive $10 million in state aid to help lure top horses to Maryland tracks.

Without the state-enhanced purse money, Maryland risks losing horses to neighboring states that can pad their prize money with earnings from slot machines.

"The governor's ultimate goal here is not just to preserve Maryland's racing tradition, but to see horse racing restored to some semblance of what it has been in the past," said Don H. Vandrey, an assistant press secretary to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Several smaller-scale projects at Laurel between 1984 and 1997 came nowhere close to this work.

Under consideration

The broadly drawn plans offer few details of how the expansion would be accomplished. But they do include drawings of a redesigned layout for entry into the park, plans for an enhanced grandstand and racing oval, and concepts for Maryland Million Park, a tent village within Laurel that would be used for festivals and special events.

They also include plans for new catering facilities and an overhaul of the nearby MARC train station in Howard County.

The land involved in the Laurel expansion stretches into the area once considered for a new home for the Washington Redskins. While nearby residents led a vocal assault on that proposal, many have warmed to the idea of refurbishing the track.

"I think the track is good for the economy, good for the community, and it's only going to get better," said Ray Smallwood, a longtime booster in the quiet community of Maryland City.

"If that land is going to be developed into something anyway, why not expand the track?" he said. "At least we'll know what kind of neighbors we'll be getting."

In addition to the ideas De Francis will share with the governor tomorrow, he outlined a number of other possible changes in presentations held for area leaders.

Those included the possibility that Laurel Park will spill into vacant property across Brock Bridge Road.

Track owners are looking at sites that include 7 acres the county recently bought for a police sub-station and recreational fields, according to several who attended the meetings.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said De Francis expressed interest in the $1 million county-owned plot, which was the subject of controversy because the county bought it from one of former County Executive John G. Gary's campaign donors in the closing days of his administration.

"They said they may be interested in that land, and I encouraged them to look at it," Owens said. "We would benefit from the additional taxes, and the folks directly there in Maryland City would benefit from the improvement to the area."

The land would be used for additional stables, De Francis told area residents.

"I don't see that the addition of more stalls at Laurel will be a controversial issue with the community," he said in an interview.

Expansion onto that parcel and neighboring land may require the county to close a portion of Brock Bridge Road, or force the owners to build a covered bridge that would allow horses to cross easily to the racetrack.

Possible concerns

In recent years, suggestions that Brock Bridge be closed have been a source of concern for residents of the small community known as Bacontown.

The Rev. John P. Carter, former pastor of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church there, said closing the road could leave some residents "prisoners in their own homes," with only a single access road.

Del. Mary Ann Love, an Arundel Democrat, said she believes the racetrack owners will be sensitive to any local concerns.

"One thing that happened after the football stadium failed was that people learned it's essential to be neighborly to your local community," Love said. Laurel officials "have been meeting with the community, and were emphatic that the residents would be involved."

Overall, state and local officials said they were impressed with the presentation and anxious to see improvements at the track.

"I thought it was very, very well done," Love said. "I think it will make a big difference in an area that really needs some solid investment."

Sun staff writer Jon Morgan contributed to this article.

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