Downtown track, slots idea floated

Stadium Authority chief offers idea to lawmakers

`Next logical marquee project'

Fledgling concept raises interest, Pimlico concerns

November 26, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's sports stadium district should grow beyond baseball and football to include a world-class thoroughbred racing, gambling and entertainment complex on the edge of downtown, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority proposed yesterday.

Carl A.J. Wright, an appointee of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., told a panel of lawmakers studying gambling issues that his agency could do more than construct slots emporiums next to existing racetracks or along interstate highways, as some have proposed.

"I think the next logical marquee project for the Stadium Authority would be a racetrack entertainment complex with video lottery terminals," Wright said.

The facility could be located across Russell Street from the Ravens stadium, he said, and would require 100 acres assembled largely through condemnation as well as the approval of the General Assembly.

Wright conceded that the concept has not progressed much beyond his imagination, and could not offer drawings, studies or construction cost estimates to support his idea.

"Do I have a lot of buy-in from city officials? No," he said, adding later that he had not discussed the idea with Ehrlich, but that a top aide to the governor did not discourage him from talking about it in public.

"In my mind, I like it," Wright said. "It has a flair to it that should be Maryland's and Baltimore's."

Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said the governor did not know about the proposal and had no plans to include it as a legislative initiative during next year's General Assembly session. But the concept, Massoni said, was interesting.

"The positive is we are talking about slots and helping racing," Massoni said. "The negative of that is that the hope of so many in the community of Pimlico, that a sports palace would make a difference, it would not be the case."

Discussed in various permutations over the years, the construction of a modern track in the downtown could mean the end of historic Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore, home of the Preakness Stakes.

Wright said the Stadium Authority -- the builder of Camden Yards, the Ravens stadium, the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland College Park and other projects -- would not undertake a city track project without the hope of running the Preakness there.

"I would assume the state would involve Pimlico and ask if they want to participate in the downtown track," Wright said.

Officials with the company that owns the 133-year-old track said that they were willing to listen to the suggestion but were focused on their own plans.

"We all understand that Pimlico is an important contributor to the economy of that community," said Paul Micucci, executive vice president of Magna Entertainment Corp., majority owner of the Maryland Jockey Club. "It's the property that we currently own, and we are planning the future development of the new Pimlico there."

A spokeswoman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley offered a frostier assessment.

"If [Wright] wants a slots emporium at a racetrack, we have a racetrack. It's called Pimlico," said Raquel Guillory. "The mayor has always been clear on his position about the Inner Harbor: He only supports slots at existing racetracks."

Wright's presentation occurred during the final public hearing held by the House of Delegates' Ways and Means Committee on the slots issue. The study was authorized during this year's General Assembly session as an alternative to the slots-at-racetracks plan offered by Ehrlich and killed by a skeptical House.

Since then, House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said the concept of publicly owned and operated slots facilities -- in one scenario, built by the Stadium Authority and run by the lottery agency -- was worth exploring.

Stadium Authority Executive Director Richard W. Slosson said his agency would welcome the chance to get into the slots emporium business. "We think we can get this built more quickly than anybody else," he said.

But some lawmakers expressed concern about the agency's broad ability to obtain land quickly and disregard local laws.

The authority can acquire land through an eminent domain process known as "quick take," where the state takes ownership and starts building, then settles on a price later. The Stadium Authority is also exempt from local planning and zoning laws in places where it builds. Delegates asked several questions in those areas.

Ways and Means Committee members will sort those issues and others as they decide how to proceed. The committee has planned a retreat Dec. 8-9, when members will discuss what to include in its final report on gambling. It is still not clear whether Busch will sanction a slots bill that originates in the House.

If the committee decides that gambling should be expanded in Maryland, a host of other choices follows, according to a document prepared by legislative staffers. Should an expansion include just slot machines, or also casino table-games? Should slots be allowed at tracks only, or also stand-alone facilities? Is a bill or a referendum preferable? Should licenses be awarded to specific locations, or should competitive bidding be allowed?

Then there are nuts-and-bolts questions, such as whether machines should spit out paper receipts or cash; and how the state's take would be spent.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the chairwoman from Montgomery County, would not say yesterday which direction the committee would take, but said, "We need money; it's a revenue source."

She also repeated her desire to link slots with an increase in the sales tax, a package that Ehrlich says he would reject.

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