City officials want a land-use plan for the depressed Park Heights area near Pimlico Race Course in hand by the time the General Assembly begins reconsidering whether to legalize slots.
"It is imperative that if new revenue comes there that the community that surrounds it shares in that revenue," said Otis Rolley III, director of the city Department of Planning. "The best way to do that is to have a plan."
Rolley expects to hire a consultant this week to study how much it would cost to revitalize the Park Heights community, which is just south of the racetrack. If Pimlico gets slots, the city is likely to want a chunk of the proceeds to pay for the community improvements.
Pimlico co-owner Joseph A. De Francis said last month that if the track gets slots then an existing community fund driven by a portion of track proceeds would grow enormously.
But if Pimlico does not get slots, or if slots are allowed somewhere in the state other than the track, the landmark Northwest Baltimore race course could be forced to close, De Francis said.
Concerns that the track could close were renewed yesterday when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said that he would likely support a slots plan that allows a track owner to put slots at only one of its locations.
Pimlico is majority-owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., which also owns a racetrack in Laurel. Faced with the choice, most observers think Magna would pick the more accessible Laurel Park site over Pimlico.
Rolley said the Park Heights study - ordered by Mayor Martin O'Malley - will determine how to improve the community with or without Pimlico there.
"The best thing to have are options for if they stay or if they go," Rolley said. "If they stay, that will be great. If, God forbid, they leave, it's not a death march but the bells of opportunity ringing."
While Mount Washington to the north of Pimlico is an upper-class community, Park Heights is troubled by dilapidated housing, crime and high unemployment.
Rolley said this would be the most comprehensive study the city has undertaken for how to address Park Heights' troubles.
The study will cost up to $350,000 and is to be completed by late January, about the time the legislature is expected to again consider whether to make slots legal, and, if so, where to put them. A proposal was killed during the last session.
The search for a consultant occurs at a time when Pimlico officials are reaching out to city leaders to support their plans for expansion.
A bill is before the City Council that would allow Pimlico to build a clubhouse for gaming machines, a hotel, banquet halls, concert theaters and more.
"The Pimlico plan submitted to the City Council seems to be an internally focused plan, at best," said Alfred W. Barry, a planning and development consultant bidding for the Park Heights job. "Whoever is hired as the consultant needs to make sure it is a community plan and not a plan just for Pimlico."
This week, the mayor's office said O'Malley has long wanted a plan for Park Heights in place. Rolley said the timing for doing the study now is no coincidence.
"It is important to [O'Malley] that he have a land-use plan in place during the session," Rolley said. "Particularly as the legislature makes a decision regarding slots and what is going to happen with revenue that might come to Pimlico."