Neighbors are warily optimistic

Tracks: Communities around the Pimlico and Laurel Park race courses hope for jobs, physical improvements and a sense of civic involvement.

July 16, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs and Jay Parsons | Johnathon E. Briggs and Jay Parsons,SUN STAFF

Community leaders had mixed reactions yesterday to Magna Entertainment Corp.'s pending acquisition of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, saying that they're heartened to see local racetracks revived but are unsure of the Canadian conglomerate's long-term motives.

From Park Heights to Maryland City, community leaders and neighbors generally agreed that a quality racetrack could be an economic boost to their neighborhood by providing jobs, attracting customers to businesses, and jumpstarting community development.

But some are skeptical of the new owners.

"I'm worried," said Ray Smallwood, president of the civic association of Maryland City, which adjoins Laurel. "It's a Canadian company, and it won't have the same sense of community spirit."

Smallwood said Laurel Park's thoroughbred facilities need to be spruced up and a new owner could play a pivotal role in making that happen. But Magna might not be looking for anything but adding to its collection of racetracks.

"We'd like to see the facilities change from antiquated to progressive, as has been the plan for years," Smallwood said. "I know it really needed a kick. I just don't know if this is the kick it needed."

In Pimlico, residents were largely surprised by the sale but hopeful that Magna can restore the pride to the aging Pimlico Race Course.

Still reeling from what they call Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. De Francis's neglect to keep the racetrack area clean, they say they are willing to surrender local ownership.

"Look at this," said Carolyn Maye, 55, waiting for a city bus at the corner of Park Heights and Belvedere avenues. She pointed through a black iron gate toward a field of asphalt and patches of tall grass at the racetrack's outskirts.

"Grass isn't supposed to grow above the concrete. Keep it clean. It makes the community look bad. I go downtown and people ask me where I live, and they say, `Oh, it stinks up there,'" said Maye, a steam presser in Pimlico.

William W. Rodgers, a Pimlico resident for 50 years, said he thinks any change is for the better: "It can't get much worse. At least it's a movement."

Some expressed hope that Magna would work alongside local business owners in cleaning up the track grounds. The De Francis family made similar promises to the community, but Magna has yet to say what role it will play in Pimlico.

Pimlico residents have an agenda ready for Magna: parking garages to alleviate roadside congestion, a flea market to attract local residents, new barns to replace those torn down years ago, clean stables to eliminate a stench noticeable several blocks away and a safe play area for children.

Jan Franz, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, said Magna should understand that these racetracks are in residential areas and consider the community's concerns before making changes.

"There is a lot of mixed feelings in the community," Franz said. "We would like to see the track continue to be used. We would like to see the area around the track fixed up."

Some residents would have preferred to see the De Francis family solve the problems without selling. But after the track's slow deterioration, patience is waning.

"It doesn't matter if it's locally owned or not," Rodgers said. "We got to make this a better neighborhood.

"They seemed to be taking money out of the neighborhood. Over the past four to five years, they haven't done much in return."

Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council, said she hopes Magna will respect input from the communities of Northwest Baltimore.

"I wonder about jobs, about what is going to be their commitment to my community," she said. "Don't isolate us. Come as business partners and people who want to see the best for this community."

It's a sentiment echoed in Laurel Park.

Jeanne Mignon, vice chairman of the Laurel Park Impact Fee committee, said she hopes the Magna-controlled racetrack will continue to be the good neighbor it has been under De Francis.

Amenities such as a conference center would help ensure the racetrack's future, she said. But she, too, remained skeptical about the new owners.

"We're just going to have to wait and see how it goes."

Sun staff writers Liz Bowie and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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