Wright optimistic on plan for downtown horse track

Stadium board chairman: `I do think' it will happen

Horse Racing

January 31, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

Carl A.J. Wright calls himself a "pretty good salesman."

He'll need to be if he has any chance of getting support for his pet project - a world-class, state-of-the-art thoroughbred racetrack as part of the Camden Yards sports complex.

Wright, 49, has been the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority since July after being appointed to the volunteer post by his friend and fellow Republican, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

He stepped squarely into the spotlight in late November when he told a panel studying gambling issues that he wanted to put a thoroughbred racing and entertainment complex downtown. And he has been lobbying legislators since the General Assembly has been in session.

While no lawmaker has offered public support for Wright's idea, privately he has received a "90-percent approval rating," he said.

"I'm encouraged," Wright said. "I do think it's going to happen."

On Thursday, two stadium authority officials had an hourlong meeting in Annapolis with a group of Baltimore legislators.

Executive director Richard W. Slosson said the authority asked for the meeting to show them "very preliminary" plans. Although nothing beyond the one meeting is planned, he anticipates there will be more presentations.

John A. Moag Jr., a former stadium authority chairman and a high school classmate of Wright's at Loyola-Blakefield, said it took "some nerve" for Wright to bring up the racetrack issue in front of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"What we want out of our leaders," he said, "is to be creative, is to throw out ideas, is to kick around a debate.

"It's the right thing to do," said Moag, chairman of the authority from 1995 through 1999.

The stadium authority was created in 1986 with the mission of obtaining an NFL team and negotiating a long-term lease with the Orioles. Since then, the state has expanded the authority's scope. Current projects include oversight of the redevelopment of the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center and the conversion of Camden Station to a sports museum.

"It takes courage to go public with big ideas," said John B. Franzone, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission who has long advocated a "supertrack" for all the state's thoroughbred racing. "He showed he's got a lot of courage to do it. You know, new thinking can be startling around here."

The two had talked about such a track "a little bit," said Franzone, an across-the-street neighbor of Wright's.

A divorced father of 23- and 21-year-old sons, Wright lives in Lutherville. He follows the Orioles and the Ravens; he has had Orioles season tickets for 20 years and Ravens season tickets since the team moved here.

Wright grew up in Parkville, the oldest of four children (two brothers and a sister), all of whom remain in the Baltimore area. His father is an accountant and a lawyer and has cared for Wright's mother since she was stricken with multiple sclerosis when Wright was 10.

He attended St. Ursula's grade school, Loyola-Blakefield and Loyola College.

"I really believe in the Jesuit philosophy. I do think that if you do it right, you take your success and spread it around," said Wright, who earned an accounting degree in 1976.

After four years in the audit and tax departments of Ernst & Young in Baltimore, Wright joined the Washington-based staffing firm Don Richards & Associates in 1980. He and a partner, David Ellis, bought its Baltimore office two years later.

After they took on another partner, Wright bought out both of them, and in 1998 he sold the business to Florida-based Interim Services Inc. Now called Spherion, it is one of the nation's largest staffing companies, helping its clients recruit workers.

Interim paid Wright $12.25 million for the company, records show. He was retained as a senior vice president.

Wright became friendly with the governor when Ehrlich was his representative in the House of Delegates in the mid-1980s, after a mutual acquaintance suggested they meet.

"We met for lunch one day, and [the friendship] just sort of developed naturally over time," said Wright in an interview in his Spherion office, in the northeast corner of the 22nd floor of the SunTrust Bank Building.

"We are friends, but we're not friends who see each other all the time," he said. "His life and my life are very busy. Have I been down to Government House for dinner? Yes, once. Have I been invited more than that? Yes, but I only got down there once. We play golf together four or five times a year."

Wright worked on Ehrlich's campaign finance committee and chaired fund-raisers for the campaign, including the Oct. 2, 2002, event at the Hyatt Regency that featured President Bush and raised about $1.8 million. Wright also directed Ehrlich's inaugural committee.

The governor said that of the many candidates to chair the seven-member board of the stadium authority, Wright was his No. 1 choice.

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