The newest study of Pimlico Race Course might remind some observers of a phrase straight out of the madness of Vietnam War era: They’ll have to destroy the place in order to save it.
The Maryland Stadium Authority says it would cost $424 million to make the track suitable for continuous hosting of the annual Preakness Stakes. But first they’d have to spend about $100 million for new water lines, sewer pipes — and Old Hilltop’s demolition.
That sounds quite ambitious for a track – and a section of town – that’s been on the skids for the last several decades. But the new plans call for wider use than the 148-year-old racetrack’s ever experienced.
We’re talking about life beyond thoroughbred racing. The plans call for a four-level clubhouse for social and civic events, after-school and summer programs and meetings, plus a plaza area, a new track and infield – and facilities for year-round public concerts, performing arts, festivals and open-air markets.
To do all this, and thus keep the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown in Baltimore, they’d have to start with demolition work at the track, and beyond its gates.
The city’s already working to acquire and demolish vacant properties in nearby neighborhoods, and to reach out to potential developers.
Anyone who’s driven along lower Park Heights Avenue or Reisterstown Road, or many of the side streets off those main thoroughfares, knows the enormous amount of rehabilitation needed across the area.
That’s part of the track’s problem. The neighborhoods just below Pimlico have been so blighted for so long, and so riddled by crime and drugs and vacant, decayed housing, that they’ve cast a shadow over the track itself.
So that raises a question: Who’s going to put up $424 million for a sport that’s fallen off America’s cultural radar, for a track that’s been around since the 19th century (and looks it), in a section of town that’s been falling apart for roughly half a century while every leader at City Hall seemed oblivious to the ongoing decay?
The answer is: We don’t know.
The Stronach Group, which owns both Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, hasn’t indicated how much money – if any – they’d contribute. The city and state haven’t committed yet.
And so, hanging in the balance is not only the history of Pimlico and the Preakness, but the future of surrounding neighborhoods whose residents have waited years for a legitimate glimpse of the track’s future – and their communities.
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,” was re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.