NORTH EAST - The much-maligned Poor Jimmy's off-track betting parlor in Cecil County was to reopen today with a new name, a dramatically new look and the potential for serving as a model for similar parlors in Timonium, Montgomery County and downtown Baltimore.
The newly christened Northeast Racing and Sports Club was unveiled this week by Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, which manages OTBs in the state. He showed off the facility on Route 40 to a select group of officials and racing fans.
"Oh my God, Joe," gasped Allaire duPont, a breeder and owner of thoroughbreds who lives in nearly Chesapeake City. "This is beautiful. I couldn't be more impressed."
"I think this is great," said Frank Hopkins, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission and an outspoken critic of the Maryland Jockey Club's management of Poor Jimmy's.
But then Hopkins uttered the question perhaps foremost in the public's mind: "Why did you take so damn long?"
For years, patrons had criticized Poor Jimmy's for its dilapidated state, and the racing commission had urged the Maryland Jockey Club to fix it up. Members of the commission became so frustrated that when, finally, the MJC closed Poor Jimmy's on Feb. 1 for repairs, they threatened daily fines if it did not reopen on time.
Nevertheless, the timetable for reopening stretched from three months to 8 1/2 months. Initially a $250,000 "paint and powder fix-up," the plan became a complete overhaul costing $2.5 million. The OTB features more than 100 televisions in smoking and non-smoking rooms. The color scheme is dark green and cream.
"It finally came to fruition," Hopkins said. "It's been a long time."
The work took longer and cost more than expected because the building's infrastructure was in terrible shape, De Francis said. Workers virtually gutted the interior, rebuilding it from the ground up, he said.
"I've been around long enough to have learned not to build up expectations too much," De Francis said, "but I can tell you this is going to be something people in Maryland can take great pride in."
De Francis said his next targets for expanding the OTB system are Baltimore County just north of the city (perhaps Timonium or White Marsh), Montgomery County and downtown Baltimore. He has already discussed building an OTB at the Timonium racetrack with officials of the state fair.
Grove Miller is president and chairman of the board of directors of the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, which owns the Timonium track. He also toured the transformed Poor Jimmy's and offered his praise.
"We've told him all along that if we did something we wanted to, do it upscale," Miller said. "Unfortunately in Maryland, when you look at what we have compared to what other states have, we don't have much, quite honestly."
The MJC did not promote today's opening in North East, choosing instead to delay a glitzy grand opening until Oct. 18 when thoroughbred racing returns to Laurel Park. But the Northeast Racing and Sports Club will be open day and night six days a week for thoroughbred and harness wagering. Betting sites around the state are closed most Tuesdays.
The "sports club" aspect of the business, as well as its restaurant and bars, will be open every day. It will televise sporting events in its two lounges. De Francis described the restaurant as upscale.
"I expect we'll do a pretty healthy business at night," he said.
The reopening of the Cecil County OTB brings to three the ones operating in Maryland.
Although De Francis delved enthusiastically into the subject of building more OTBs, he said that before that can happen he will have to negotiate new contracts with the horsemen. To justify investments of a couple of million dollars, he said, he will need a larger slice of the pie, meaning the gambling dollar. It is divided several ways, including to management and to horsemen for purses.
Horsemen may not be inclined to make concessions. But De Francis perhaps feels pressure to construct more OTBs quickly because of the looming presence of William Rickman Jr.
Rickman, who owns the Delaware Park racetrack and slots emporium, is buying the Ocean Downs' harness track near Ocean City. He is also competing with the Maryland Jockey Club for the license to build a horse track in Allegany County.
But for now, the displaced patrons of the former Poor Jimmy's will likely delight in returning to the new and improved Northeast Racing and Sports Club.
Sandi Vachek has been driving her husband, Sid, from their Bel Air home to Delaware Park, a 90-minute drive as opposed to 45 minutes to North East, she said. Sandi, 55, is a kindergarten teacher. Sid, 70, is a retired shoe salesman.
She said she has enjoyed Delaware Park because it's clean, pleasant, accommodating - "and they have the slots." But she said she'll welcome the shorter commute, as long as the old Poor Jimmy's is history.
"I thought it was a total dump," she said. "The toilets didn't work. It was filthy. The tables were awful. The chairs didn't have four even legs. It was pathetic."