Racetrack not the talk of the town

Residents foresee little change stemming from Laurel Park sale

July 20, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

At the Something Special cafe on Laurel's Main Street, there's not much talk among the coffee-and-sweet-roll crowd about the recent sale of the local racetrack. Folks are more interested in news that a hometown pick for police chief has withdrawn his application.

"Looks like they'll bring in an outsider," says shop owner Pat Walsh, the man Laurel comes to for news. His motto: "We don't repeat rumors - so listen closely the first time."

Walsh, like many residents, has a Laurel Park story to tell. He recalls going to the track with his kids, a time when an outing to the racetrack for a family of five - food and drinks included - cost $20 tops.

But the track does not dominate this Prince George's County city. These days, life in Laurel is all about reviving the city's Victorian-era Main Street, going to Home Depot for vinyl siding and hedge clippers, or moving up at the National Security Agency or United Parcel Service, which are nearby.

"It's funny that it is called the Laurel racetrack because not one part of it sits in the city of Laurel," says Laurel Police Lt. Fred Carmen, a longtime resident. "We border it and we are impacted by it, but we have nothing to do with it."

The confusion over boundaries is not surprising, considering the sprawling outlines of the Laurel area, a swath of development between Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The city has 20,000 residents, but the total climbs to 160,000 if Laurel ZIP code communities such as Russett in Anne Arundel County and North Laurel in Howard County are included.

The city has had a place in headlines before this week's announcement of the $117 million racetrack deal that includes the purchase of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

In 1972, Arthur H. Bremer shot segregationist and former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace in a local shopping center parking lot. More recently, the media swarmed to the area amid news that a Sept. 11 terrorist had stayed at the Pin-Del Motel just over the Patuxent River in Howard County. Later that month, a tornado severely damaged a historic building that once housed City Hall.

Life in the city of Laurel - according to those who grew up or raised families there, or fled the city, only to return - is good. It has retained a small-town feel, yet is an easy commute to Baltimore and Washington. And it is close to rock-solid employers such as Fort Meade and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, a utility that serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Laurel's median household income is $57,115, higher than the statewide median of $52,868, according to the 2000 census.

"Laurel is the kind of place where there are an awful lot of people who have lived here for a long time," says Jim McCeney, 60, a retired Silver Spring accountant and Laurel native who is about to move back to his family home on Main Street.

His father, Dr. Robert S. McCeney, delivered 6,000 babies during a 58-year career. He was also an official racetrack doctor at Laurel Park.

"I used to leave Laurel Elementary School at 3 p.m. and run all the way to the track because they had a steeplechase at 3:30 or 4, and I got to get in the ambulance and ride with my dad," McCeney recalls. "I spent a decent amount of time at the racetrack. We knew a lot of the jockeys and the patrons."

There isn't as much crossover today. Few racetrack patrons visit Main Street's antique stalls and book stores, nor do they rent rooms and houses as they once did. The number of Laurel residents directly employed by the track has decreased as well.

And though it wasn't unusual to share a backyard fence with a track manager or stablehand two decades ago, it's virtually unheard of in Laurel today.

"When my family moved to Laurel, it was known for its racetrack," says City Administrator Kristie M. Mills, a 32-year city employee. "In the 1950s and the 1960s, the racetrack was a very important part of our community and our economy."

Indeed, businesses such as A.M. Kroop and Sons Inc., which made English riding boots, lightweight jockey boots and training jodhpurs for racetrack employees, have had to look far beyond the gates of Laurel Park for new customers.

"When the jockeys used to come in, they would be dressed in suits," says Randy H. Kroop. She has helped the family business, which still follows a 125-step manufacturing process for each boot, reach new clients around the globe.

"Now they don't even come to the store. Instead, they send their valets."

Now that Magna Entertainment Corp. has announced its purchase of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, local residents are waiting for the details.

Company officials promise track improvements in an effort to create entertainment centers offering more than betting booths and beer. Among the possibilities: concerts, shops, slot machines and night racing.

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