Pig in a poke at Pimlico

October 28, 2003

THE BALTIMORE City Council will be making a terrible mistake if it fast-tracks a proposal to turn Pimlico into a horse racing-connected entertainment mecca, thus increasing slot proponents' leverage before next year's General Assembly session.

Yes, Pimlico, the aging home of the Preakness, desperately needs a make-over. Its facilities - from stables to seating areas - are in sad shape. But a modernization plan its owners have submitted to the City Council raises troubling questions about the racetrack's future. With a 700-room hotel and covered seating for at least 5,800 patrons, in addition to space for thousands more inside the new grandstand, would it be a refurbished racetrack or something totally different?

The supposed redevelopment blueprint before the City Council fails to provide anything close to definitive answers. That's just unacceptable. Permitted uses are so broad that Northwest Baltimore residents could wake up one day to find an ugly surprise in their midst.

Consider the possibilities included in the Pimlico proposal:

"The following uses are permitted indoors or within the grandstand areas of the racetrack: automatic teller machines; artisans' and craft work; banks and savings associations; barber shops; beauty shops; book stores; general; camera and photographic supply stores; candy and ice cream stores; carry-out food shops; department stores; gift and card shops; food stores; grocery stores; meat markets, bakeries and delicatessens; newsstands; outdoor table service when accessory to a restaurant, taverns and lunchrooms; post offices; shoeshine parlors; ticket agencies; tobacco shops; travel bureaus; and vending machines for retail sale of products."

Does this grab bag look like a racetrack - or a shopping mall?

By contrast, the proposal is quite precise in clearing the way for Pimlico owners to install "video lottery terminal facilities" at the track as soon as state law permits. Thus, favorable council action on the bill before January would unavoidably give the city's stamp of approval to a campaign to introduce slots at Maryland racetracks.

Rather than allowing themselves to be used in such a fashion, City Council members should demand greater clarity from Magna Entertainment Corp., which now owns the racetrack, about what it intends to build at the facility, and when.

Also, in view of possible action on slots in Annapolis, the City Council would be wise to delete the premature video terminal provision from the bill. If slots are authorized, the track owners can come back to the council and have the bill amended.

The Pimlico decision is too important for Northwest Baltimore's future to rush through. The City Council should follow the lead of the Planning Commission, which deleted the Pimlico plan from its Nov. 6 agenda because of too many outstanding questions.

If the City Council buys a pig in a poke, that's what it's likely to get.

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