Preakness needed more than shops

April 05, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

It should be quite a day at the races.

"Let the best man win," Carl Verstandig says cheerily.

That's "man" rather than "horse" because this year, what happens to Pimlico Race Course is going to be more important in the long run than at Pimlico Race Course.

Verstandig is the latest, and most surprising, entrant in the stakes to buy the track, home to the legendary Preakness race, from the current owner, Magna Entertainment Corp. Magna filed for bankruptcy last month and announced its plans to auction its horse racing interests in the state, throwing much of Maryland - or at least its political leadership and its thoroughbred fans - into a state of high anxiety over what would happen to our own jewel in the Triple Crown.

Verstandig's entry may not do much to quell that. In fact, his vision of what he would do to Old Hilltop may make your head explode. Three words (which decidedly are not "black-eyed Susans"): Big box stores.

"We have a national grocer, a home improvement store, an electronics store," he said of the retailers he has lined up for a new shopping center at Pimlico. "It's the larger box units, and a neighborhood center around it."

While Verstandig says he could build his center around the race course, it's obvious his preference is to tear down the track and build a new mall from the ground up. Plus, he's not even going to bid on the Preakness itself, just the track as well as the other Magna property down the road, Laurel Park, which he also sees as a potential shopping center.

His blatant lack of interest in the whole Preakness thing - The traditions! The hats! The port-a-potty rooftop races! - sets him apart from the other declared bidders. Their exact plans aren't known at the moment, but none seem likely to tear down Pimlico or send the Preakness packing.

There's David Cordish, the go-to potential rescuer of seemingly every threatened local institution from Harborplace to the Senator movie theater. He'll be bidding on both race tracks plus the Preakness. Given that some of the slots revenues are slated to boost the horse racing industry, he seemed quite delighted at the prospect of "sending the highest possible subsidy check to ourselves as owners of the tracks," as he told The Baltimore Sun.

Then there's Peter Angelos, who as owner of the Baltimore Orioles cannot have a stake in a gambling interest like a racetrack but who has expressed his commitment to helping Maryland keep the Preakness. A group calling itself Heritage Racing, located on the same floor of the same building as Angelos' law office, has organized to buy Pimlico and keep the Preakness here.

Into this Preakness-centric field comes something of a dark horse, the less well-known Verstandig. While Cordish's signature development is the splashy destination complex, like Power Plant Live!, Verstandig's company, America's Realty, specializes in admittedly less glitzy projects.

"We're not looking to be the shiniest guys on the block," he said.

No threat of that - Verstandig's signature development would be the faded, less than fully leased-out strip mall in a low-income city neighborhood. He's bought dozens of these, bringing in new anchor stores and other retailers to fill in vacant storefronts.

"What our format has been is to take shopping centers that are run down," he said. "We buy them at a discount price, we lease at a discount price. We can be cheaper than anyone else."

His niche is the serviceable rather than aspirational end of the retail market. "It's comfortable. It's convenient," said Mack Gee, a retired Beth Steel worker who can walk from his house over to the Waverly Tower shopping center at 28th and Greenmount.

Verstandig bought the center four years ago with plans to anchor it with a new Modell's Sporting Goods. That didn't work out, so he brought in a Citi Trends clothing store and a shoe store (the latter now closed). While some shoppers and store employees said they wished the shopping center had more options - there's no restaurant or grocery store - the center seemed well-trafficked nonetheless. A steady stream of customers bought lottery tickets, cigarettes and money orders at the cell phone store, parents with kids in tow headed into Family Dollar, women checked out the clothes at Ashley Stewart.

Verstandig sold the mall about a year ago after getting what he says was an offer he couldn't refuse. He's no flipper, he says, generally keeping the centers he buys.

"We go in, we look at the voids in the area, we add services to the area," he said.

For all the gaping retail needs that many city neighborhoods have, though, surely the bigger void would be created by the loss of the singular Preakness. Even when bankruptcies are all too rampant, even when it's all bottom line all the time, I find it nearly impossible to imagine Pimlico without the Preakness, or the Preakness somewhere other than at Pimlico.

"It's all a question of economics," Verstandig said of any number of options, from building a shopping center around the race track or even moving the Preakness to Laurel. "We're not looking to be the villains here."

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