Racing, slots, Pimlico

Urban Chronicle

May 16, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IN SPRING, many a Marylander's fancy turns to ... the future of horse racing.

The reason, of course, is the Preakness, which will have its 127th running Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.

It is a subject that is as vital to the neighborhoods around the track in Northwest Baltimore as it is in the barns and stables of the state's rural breeding farms.

With the administration of Gov. Parris N. (No slots, No casinos, No exceptions) Glendening coming to an end, community leaders have joined politicians, racing officials and others in reviving the discussion of whether slot machines should be allowed at tracks.

"We've reopened the dialogue," Diane Frederick, executive director of the umbrella neighborhood group, Northwest Baltimore Corp., said of the slots issue.

Advocates view slots as the salvation of a fading industry. Opponents contend that they could lead to an increase in crime and addictive gambling.

At a community meeting a few weeks back, leaders took a straw vote among about 150 area residents in attendance, asking whether they wanted no slots under any circumstances, or slots if the community got substantially more money to fund neighborhood improvements.

The results: About 60 percent said they wanted no slots under any circumstances.

"It was a clear majority," said William H. Engleman, a Mount Washington resident and chairman of the Pimlico Race Track Neighborhood Task Force. "It wasn't overwhelming; it's not insignificant. The issue is still on the table."

The vote came despite a presentation by Engleman of conditions that could be set to address concerns raised by residents and by a 1998 consultant's report on the implications of putting slots at Pimlico.

Among them: enhanced private and public security for the area; hiring preference for residents of neighborhoods such as Pimlico and Park Heights, which suffer from high unemployment and low incomes; and an increase in state racetrack impact fees, now about $600,000 a year, proportional to the rise in revenue slots would generate.

To Engleman, the consultant's analysis was largely a wash, with potential benefits offsetting possible harm. Still, he came away thinking that slots could help the area if impact fees were significantly increased. "My position is based on the neighborhoods getting more money," he said.

It's not hard to find people who disagree with him - or who haven't made up their minds.

"I don't see where slots will help the community, let me put it that way," said the Rev. Elijah McDaniel, head of the Pembridge Neighborhood Association and pastor of the 1st Philadelphia Baptist Church across town in East Baltimore.

"I'm kind of ambivalent about it," said Sharon Hunter, director of the Coldspring Head Start program.

The program is getting ready to accept its first children at the former site of the Pimlico library branch on Park Heights Avenue, one of five branches that were closed last year. Across the street, Park Heights Elementary School, also closed last year, sits boarded and vacant, a result of loss of population that in some nearby neighborhoods reached 20 percent in the last decade.

The part of Park Heights Avenue near Pimlico serves as somewhat of a dividing line: east of the street, near the track, the houses are mostly tidy and well-kept; west of it is a warren of abandoned homes. The handful of blocks between the old library and Northern Parkway could be a poster for impoverished urban commercial strips, a melange of carryouts, check cashing outlets, hair salons and bars and liquor stores.

"I don't know how it would affect the neighborhood," said Hunter. "We have so many problems, maybe it would positively affect us."

To Frederick, the issue for the neighborhoods is not just whether they want slots at the track, but what will happen if slots are approved regardless of how the community feels. "We aren't going to have the final say," she said. "The question is, `If this becomes a reality, what do you want to see happen?'"

Frederick said her personal feeling is that sooner or later the legislature will approve slots at the tracks "because there's so much money at stake."

As things stand now, the city uses about two-thirds of the $600,000 in state racetrack impact fees for police overtime and other services, and the community gets the rest for summer jobs, community organizing and other programs, Frederick said.

An increase in funds, she said, would allow the community to mount a broader attack on some of its problems. "We have 1,000 abandoned properties in this area," she said.

On the other hand, she said, if the track were somehow to close, it would leave a 141-acre void in the middle of the area.

Frederick said she would be listening to what candidates for governor and the legislature say about slots at the track in their campaigns this summer, and plans to follow up with more community meetings in the fall.

"I think it's got to be discussed," she said. "If it's going to happen, let's get the show on the road. If it's not, what's Plan B?"

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