Officials betting Pimlico project gives city a boost

Plans are in early stage, De Francis tells gathering

Powerful political support

August 06, 2002|By Laura Vozzella and Tom Pelton | Laura Vozzella and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Though a Canadian company's plan to demolish Pimlico Race Course and rebuild it from the ground up is still sketchy, city and state officials are already betting the project will give Baltimore a boost and - for better or worse - help bring slot machines to the state.

"We are still at the kindergarten stage of planning," Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said yesterday. "We still need to figure out the details."

De Francis offered no blueprints and few specifics to about 80 residents and state officials who attended a public meeting last night at the race course to learn more about the project proposed by Magna Entertainment Corp.

The company has agreed to buy a majority interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks from the jockey club. The $117.5 million deal is subject to approval by the Maryland Racing Commission.

After yesterday's gathering, it was not clear how the ambitious plans fit the business strategy of racing magnate Frank Stronach, whose company is reining in spending and planning layoffs. Still, the plan has some powerful political support.

"It's still very preliminary," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "This is his [Stronach's] vision, his idea. Let's give him the chance to try to make it come true."

Some state leaders, including Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore, said they would consider public funding for the plan - something De Francis stressed has not been sought.

Skeptics wondered how Magna would pay for the project, given the company's recent financial news. Last week, the company reported second-quarter income of $1.1 million, down from $2.2 million a year ago, and its stock hit a 52-week low.

The Daily Racing Form, a paper widely read in the racing industry, ran an article yesterday about the company under the headline: "Poor quarter puts end to Magna spending spree."

The article said the company will cut back on capital spending, lay off workers and postpone a $100 million renovation of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.

Officials in Arcadia, Calif., have complained that Magna never made good on a promise three years ago to build an elaborate entertainment complex at Santa Anita Park. "Nothing has come to fruition," City Manager William R. Kelly said yesterday.

Magna officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, a national holiday in Canada. But De Francis said Pimlico will be the company's priority.

"The Magna company has said it has put off renovations to Gulfstream Park in Florida in part because it has moved rebuilding Pimlico higher up on its priority list," he said. "We win because as they sat down and decided their priorities, we came out number one."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the plans could be a boon to the area. "It's a very large company that has a lot of resources, and it provides a unique opportunity for the Pimlico community and Baltimore City," he said. "I think they're going to want to make this a showcase."

Magna's promised investment in Pimlico also could help bring slots into the state, say supporters and opponents of that form of gambling.

Foes believe the owners will turn Pimlico into a "racino," stuffed full of slot machines.

"As soon as I saw the headlines this morning, I thought, `Well, they really are planning that casino,'" said anti-slots activist Kimberly S. Roman of Glen Burnie.

Roman, co-chair of NOcasiNO Maryland, said she doesn't see any other way to finance extensive racetrack improvements and make the facility profitable without slots.

"If they don't want slots, what do they want?" she asked. "How do they propose to make it profitable? There isn't a new market for horse racing here. I'm very suspicious."

Stronach said in an interview Saturday that "it would be nice to have [slots] in the short run to level the playing field" with tracks in neighboring states that have them, but that horse racing can compete without slots in the long run.

"I don't want solely to hang my hat on slots," he said. "I'm a horseman. I want to make sure we don't lose live racing. Slots are not the only answer."

Stronach also said he intends to move the Preakness to Laurel for a year during construction and build a new automotive parts factory at or near Pimlico. (De Francis clarified that aspect of the plan yesterday, saying the factory would not be built on the 129-acre Pimlico property, but somewhere in Baltimore or Maryland.)

The company's proposal caught the state's top racing official off guard. Louis Ulman, chairman of the racing commission, said he met with Stronach and De Francis on Thursday but that they never mentioned plans to tear down Pimlico.

The plans have raised hopes for a rejuvenated Pimlico. But they also sparked fears that the track might not be rebuilt and that the Preakness, the second jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown, would never return.

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