Spector runs political risk in backing track plans

Pimlico expansion, slots draw constituents' ire

November 01, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

In the battle over slot machines, City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector has emerged as an unlikely soldier for Pimlico Race Course.

The strategy conceived during the summer had Spector persuading Pimlico to make good on a decades-old improvement project. In return, she would take the political risk of supporting the track's grand but predictably much-debated expansion plans, which include slot machines.

"I knew I was taking a big step," said Spector. "Listen, if I can't do better, I won't do anything. But if it is worth it, I'll face the music. And I have to take this opportunity to make it work. I'm not going to back off of this just because it is sticky."

And it has gotten sticky for Spector. A week after she introduced a bill proposing a large-scale Pimlico expansion -- that might include a hotel, banquet halls and concert theaters -- the councilwoman stands accused of ignoring her constituents and cozying up to the track.

"I think she is doing the bidding of the track. Rikki is completely out of touch with the community on this issue," said Aaron Meisner, a resident of Mount Washington, which borders Pimlico and is represented by Spector.

"I didn't see this coming, and I think that is the sentiment of the neighborhood in general," Meisner said. "That she is in the forefront disturbs me."

A tough sell

Pimlico Race Course officials knew their growth plans -- transforming the sleepy residential track into a bustling gambling complex -- would be a tough sell, and they needed someone trustworthy up front. Joseph A. De Francis, co-owner of Pimlico, has a lot of influence in the horse racing community but little in the neighborhoods that surround the Baltimore track.

Enter Spector, the repeatedly elected council member from the city's northwest neighborhoods.

But her role -- softening Pimlico's image as it seeks zoning rights to grow into a large entertainment venue -- is proving difficult. At two community meetings this week attended mostly by Pimlico area residents, the skeptical audiences had tough questions for Pimlico officials.

And during both meetings, Spector, who was not expected to speak, jumped from her front row chair to grab the microphone and verbally spar with anyone opposed to the project.

`They won't listen'

"They won't listen," Spector said after Thursday's meeting.

She was in Annapolis this week sitting in on slot machine discussions and came back to Baltimore worried about Pimlico. She told the audience Thursday that the state wants to capitalize on slot proceeds by allowing gambling at state-run venues and not necessarily at private locations such as racetracks.

"Thanks for your opinion," one man shouted at Spector sarcastically during the meeting.

"Can we get back to the agenda?" another man said.

Spector believes that approving Pimlico's expansion plans would guarantee that the track would not close or lose the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.

But the Mount Washington Improvement Association, an influential neighborhood group, voted to oppose slots for Pimlico.

De Francis said this week that if slots aren't approved or are permitted anywhere in Maryland besides Pimlico that the track would suffer fiscally and possibly close.

That has Spector leaning toward supporting slots for Pimlico. "You can't sit back and let this thing deteriorate and affect the rest of the community," she said.

Pimlico officials want the city to approve the deal by the time the legislature convenes again in January and legalizing slots again becomes the hottest issue. City approval of the track legislation would strengthen Pimlico's bid to be named a host for the gambling machines.

No bets

"It's just not going to happen that fast. This is going to go on for a long time, and I would not want to put my money on the table and make bets," said Diane Frederick of the Northwest Baltimore Corp.

Frederick is closely watching the debate because her organization manages impact funds that come to the Pimlico community from the racetrack. Those funds could significantly increase, or decrease, depending on how the slot issue unfolds.

Spector has made good on her dealings with Pimlico in getting the track to agree to landscaping and parking plans, as stipulated in a 1974 agreement with the city.

The city's Design Advisory Panel accepted the track's landscaping proposal this week, and track officials said they would complete the estimated $11 million project with or without slots.

"I think Rikki's vision and intent is good and honest," said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, who has not offered support for Pimlico's expansion plans.

"But she doesn't have the community behind her on this one," Gladden said. "They don't want slots, and that's what they see this plan being about."

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