That was a pretty nice meeting on Tuesday night at the Mount Washington Pediatric Center. About 150 people from the communities surrounding creaky old Pimlico Race Course packed a couple of rooms, anticipating any hopeful news about the track’s future – and consequently their neighborhoods’.
And not a soul sent out a single shriek indicating panic in the air.
“A year ago,” said Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-41st), “the question was, ‘Why spend millions for one day?’” – meaning, of course, Preakness Day, and the millions needed to upgrade the 148-year old track and keep the historic racing event from moving to Laurel. “Now the question is, ‘How do we develop the site contiguous to the track and keep the track open?’”
Martha Nathanson, a vice president for LifeBridge Health, said Sinai Hospital is interested in developing a big swath of the racetrack’s undeveloped land as an ambulatory care center. “LifeBridge,” she said, “is completely committed to making it work.”
And Gov. Larry Hogan has expressed his desire to keep Pimlico alive by keeping the Preakness where it’s always been.
All of this is nice to hear, though it doesn’t exactly erase the anxiety felt in the surrounding neighborhoods. If Pimlico’s abandoned, it would expose the big geographical buffer that separates those neighborhoods northwest of the track, stretching from Park Heights Avenue down to Falls Road, such as Mount Washington, from those below Belvedere Avenue down to Park Circle, which have long been plagued by poverty, abandoned housing, high crime and drug abuse.
Goes the track, goes the buffer, comes the anxiety.
It’s not as if nobody’s been preparing for this. Pimlico’s racing dates have shrunk to about a dozen dates a year. None but Preakness Day make any money. The track is said to need roughly $300 million in upgrades.
The Maryland Stadium Authority, among others, has been looking carefully at the property. Suggestions have been made for year-round possibilities for the site.
There was a time, not so long ago, when slot machines were headed to Baltimore and many hoped they’d be installed at the track. That idea went nowhere, shot down by those who worried about two things: additional traffic along already congested Northern Parkway, particularly in afternoon rush hours, and the lure of risky gambling to Lower Park Heights residents already struggling financially.
Plenty of those residents were at Tuesday’s meetings as well – hearing encouraging words, but surely wondering if they’re merely an echo of previous administrations whose leaders talked big but ultimately paid little attention to the blight along Lower Park Heights.
So Pimlico remains vulnerable – financially, structurally, and historically. And the track’s vulnerability is felt by all surrounding neighbors.
They heard some hopeful words Tuesday evening – nothing terribly specific, but no doomsday utterances, either. And, for the moment, that’s considered a plus.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.