Calls to keep Preakness here

Some lawmakers oppose Pimlico redevelopment, others welcome it

General Assembly

April 04, 2009|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,hanah.cho@baltsun.com

Maryland lawmakers decried a proposal that would strip Pimlico Race Course of the historic Preakness Stakes, a day after a Pikesville developer revealed plans to bid on the Baltimore racetrack and replace it with a shopping center.

On Friday, some officials called for exploring other legal means to ensure that the Preakness remain at Pimlico, which is up for sale, along with Laurel Park, by its bankrupt owner. Still others welcomed the idea of a shopping center, though a city zoning law would need to be changed to allow the removal of a racetrack from the historic Pimlico property.

Carl Verstandig, president and chief executive officer of America's Realty LLC, hopes to buy both Maryland thoroughbred tracks and redevelop those lands as retail centers. He said he is open to keeping the Preakness at Pimlico if a buyer steps up to keep the second leg of the racing Triple Crown there.

"We would go ahead and consider the Preakness if someone leased the facility. ...," he said Friday. "If no one comes forward, we would tear it down."

Verstandig is one of several potential buyers who have expressed interest in buying the two tracks, whose futures are uncertain after the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Pimlico, Laurel and rights to the Preakness. Other interested parties include developer David S. Cordish and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.

Magna wants to auction the Maryland tracks along with others, including Santa Anita Park in Southern California. A bankruptcy judge on Friday postponed discussion of the auction rules until April 20 after several creditors objected to the process.

Also at the hearing, Magna said it will hire a restructuring officer to ensure open bidding for the company's assets and add new board members.

Maryland officials are trying to preserve their claim to the Preakness, which is the state's single largest sporting event. Maryland law gives the state the right to match any accepted bid to buy the event, but bankruptcy courts can disregard state laws if they feel they are not in creditors' interests.

The prospect of a retail center replacing Pimlico's grassy infield would be opposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a top aide said.

Joseph C. Bryce, the governor's chief legislative officer, said O'Malley's office has been in consultation for the past two weeks with the attorney general's office about whether any additional legislation is needed to keep the Preakness running in Baltimore.

Del. Sandy I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, said he formally requested advice from the attorney general's office after reading about the shopping center proposal in The Baltimore Sun.

"I think we need to use all legal available steps to make sure the Preakness stays, ideally at Pimlico," he said. "I prefer a rebuilt racetrack at Pimlico with new owners."

City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Friday that "any proposals that lead to Baltimore City losing the Preakness should be off the table."

A city zoning ordinance restricts Pimlico's use to that of a racetrack and any change would require City Council approval, said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, whose district includes the race course.

"If somebody bought it today and as we read wants to make a shopping center, they can't do it," Spector said. "The [ordinance] can be removed but that's not my intention."

Verstandig said he is aware of the restriction but added, "We have dealt with the city before, and we're just at the beginning process."

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who represents the Pimlico area, welcomed the idea of a shopping center.

"We have to do something with that space. It's huge and valuable, and we can't have it sit vacant, that's for sure. We need businesses," she said, adding that the "most clever" proposal would be one that would retain the track but also add commercial properties.

Acknowledging the event's 134-year history of running the Preakness Stakes and its tradition, Verstandig said he would "love to see the Preakness there."

"The place has to be modernized, and somebody has to pay for a land lease to keep it there," he said, adding it could cost $8 million to $10 million to refurbish and modernize it.

Sun reporters Gadi Dechter, Julie Bykowicz, Laura Smitherman and Annie Linskey, and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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