Track owner offers trade for neighbors

Training facility to aid a declining Pimlico area

January 08, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Frank Stronach took a short walk about a year ago through the declining neighborhood surrounding Pimlico Race Course, which is owned by one of his companies, and was reminded of his own humble beginnings.

"I walked around and said, `Oh my, God. This is such a poor neighborhood,'" Stronach said yesterday about Park Heights, the community encompassing the racetrack. "How could this happen?"

An Austrian who immigrated to Canada more than a half century ago, Stronach moved to his new country with $200 in his pocket and a skill for shaping metal pieces into machine parts. He parlayed that ability into founding what is today a leading auto parts manufacturing company that last year reported $15 billion in sales.

Stronach, chairman of Magna International Inc., was back in Park Heights yesterday to formally announce the coming of a new job training center that will train adults to learn the same tool-and-die skills he started with a half-century ago.

The Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center, a $7 million project, will open in September and be located in the former Park Heights Elementary School in the 4900 block of Park Heights Ave.

The boarded-up school will be renovated into a training center "showcase," Stronach said. Magna will also renovate an adjacent recreation center, with a swimming pool and gymnasium, as part of this project.

The center is being held out as a major lift for an area that sorely needs revitalization.

"Anything positive here to take away all this negative is welcome," said Ronald Billy, who owns a clothing alterations shop on Park Heights Avenue. "We have to have something. Because this whole area here has to come up, or we will die."

The project is also helping to create a little good will for Magna, whose horse tracks in Pimlico and Laurel are being considered by state lawmakers for lucrative slot machine deals. Pimlico officials are also lobbying city officials -- some whom were present at yesterday's news conference standing behind Stronach -- to approve plans for expanding the racetrack into a full-fledge entertainment venue.

Magna Entertainment Corp., another Stronach company, owns Pimlico and Laurel Park.

Pimlico Race Course is Park Heights' most notable and high-profile resident. But its character is shaped by its high number of dilapidated and vacant houses, many in the most visible places. There is high unemployment, about 14 percent, and low educational success. And crime keeps police busy here.

"What you are doing is planting a seed of encouragement for our young people," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings told Stronach during the news conference inside the school. "When we are dead and gone, this [training center] will have impact that is everlasting."

"I think the word is `desperately,'" Paul Blinken, owner of Cinderella Shoes in the 5000 block of Park Heights Ave., said after the news conference. "This area desperately needs this program. Something to help all these people walking around here with no jobs and no skills."

The city's Board of Estimates voted unanimously last month to hand Magna a 10-year lease at $10 a year to use the city-owned school building. Magna will pay for renovations.

The training center will offer a tool-and-die program and a separate building maintenance program in partnership with Baltimore City Community College.

Upon completion, students will earn certificates acknowledging they learned a trade or they can enter a two-year program and earn an associate degree from BCCC. The center will be able to accommodate about 100 students a year.

The programs are open to people with a high school diploma, but those who lack one may take General Educational Development classes offered by BCCC at the training center.

The programs will charge tuition, but BCCC President Sylvester E. McKay said scholarships and grants will mean students will pay next to nothing to attend the program.

This will be the fourth training center opened by Stronach, but the first in the United States. Others are in Canada, Germany and Mexico.

"I had a trade, and that allowed me to do things. That's what we want to do here," Stronach said. "Hopefully we'll get some people out of here who start some businesses."

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