The future of Pimlico Race Course got a little clearer this week – at least theoretically – when approximately 100 of the track’s residential neighbors gathered at the Mount Washington Conference Center on Wednesday evening, Nov. 5, and heard planners say all the right things.
Up to a point.
Bill Cole, former head of the Baltimore Development Corp., did most of the heavy verbal lifting, though he had help from Dalya Attar, Tony Bridges and Sandy Rosenberg, all of whom represent the 41st District in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Considering that the prospects for the track and the Preakness Stakes were pretty bleak until the last couple of months, the planners and speakers were all earnest and reassuring.
About most things.
Pending General Assembly approval, the Preakness will stay where it’s been since 1873. That looked like a serious long-shot over the last several years.
The creaky old clubhouse and stables will be torn down and rebuilt, and the track itself reconfigured. There will be a new public library on the premises, and space designed for athletic fields, community festivals and events such as book fairs and a produce market.
There’s talk of a small hotel on the grounds, a grocery store, an office building and homes. Sinai Hospital will develop a big swath of the property.
And the Preakness Stakes, which brings positive national attention and millions of dollars to Baltimore each spring, will stay where it is instead of moving to Laurel.
“From our first meeting,” Rosenberg said, tossing praise to Cole, “Bill made the analogy of Baltimore losing the Preakness to Baltimore losing the Bullets.”
That’s the pro basketball Bullets, who once filled winter nights at the place we used to call the Baltimore Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena). They moved to Washington in 1973. It wasn’t as devastating as losing the football Colts in ‘84, but it was pretty bad. It left a hole in the municipal psyche.
Losing the Preakness would leave another hole.
“Bill gets it,” Rosenberg said. “He gets it.”
All of this sounds quite nice. It says the people fighting for Pimlico understand the history and emotions involved, and not just the economics.
But it doesn’t cover everything.
There is still that area just below the track, along Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road all the way down to Park Circle, that has suffered through half a century of municipal neglect.
Efforts have commenced to clean up the area, but we’re talking about a lot of years and a lot of damage, and a lot of troubles over a lot of geography. It’s not going to be transformed overnight.
And until it is, we had some uplifting talk the other night about “community involvement.” That means making the Pimlico property welcoming to those on both sides of the track – a track that has been a physical and psychological buffer between the middle-class neighborhoods to the northwest of the track and the impoverished areas below.
That’s an enigma still waiting to be addressed. How do you change a buffer into a community gathering spot? That question has frustrated generations of Baltimoreans for roughly half a century, and it’s still waiting to be addressed.
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.