A struggling neighborhood's big bet on Pimlico's future

Race fans cheer on horses at the Pimlico Park finish line in Baltimore on May 11, 2024. Locals are collaborating on plans to rebuild the famed track and uplift the neighboring community. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott's childhood memories of the Preakness Stakes are more about the hardships the famed horse race imposed on his Park Heights neighborhood than any benefits the community reaped from the event. Sure, some enterprising residents and business owners made a few bucks selling water, letting fans park on their lawns and even charging for the use of their bathroom as throngs descended on the aging Pimlico Race Course for the second leg of racing's Triple Crown.

But mostly, Scott said, he associates the Preakness with choking traffic, onerous parking restrictions and indiscriminate police sweeps aimed at making outsiders feel safe. "On the day before Preakness, you wouldn't even go outside because they would come and roust people off the corner," Scott recalled. "When I was growing up, we felt like Preakness was in Park Heights but not for Park Heights."

Maryland political leaders are wagering $400 million that they can change the decades-old, arm's-length relationship between the track and the neighborhood. The state legislature has approved a risky plan to use the struggling sport of horse racing to improve struggling Park Heights, a community living in the shadow of Pimlico and long burdened by rampant poverty, crime and disinvestment.

Last week, Gov. Wes Moore signed legislation to let a state-created nonprofit buy crumbling Pimlico from its private owners for $1, raze it and rebuild it with the neighborhood in mind as a profit-sharing partner. Before the community gets its cut, though, the state is obligated to pay $3 million annually to the current owners for rights to the Preakness, plus 2% of betting proceeds from the race -- roughly another $2 million. The state also will use some of the $400 million outlay to build a separate horse training facility at one of several proposed sites in the Maryland suburbs.

With meager or no profits to show in recent years, a big question is how much would be left for Park Heights.

State officials said a big part of the track's problem is its run-down condition. Pimlico dates back to 1870 and is widely recognized as the nation's second-oldest race course. The facility is showing its age, having not undergone a major renovation in more than a half century. The clubhouse's ceiling tiles are faded and water-stained. There is no working kitchen, and five years ago, a 6,700-seat section of its grandstand was closed because of safety concerns.

"It is not like anybody's sneaking out and going to the race track, because it's not inviting," said Greg Cross, chair of the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority, which developed the Pimlico rebuilding plan. "I mean, why would you want to go there? Our task is to put the sexy back into Pimlico." Through the years, Maryland lawmakers have made other efforts to prop up horse racing, but Cross said they amounted to "half-steps" that neither elevated the track-going experience nor helped the surrounding community. This time, he said, things will be different.

The commitment to rebuild the track will keep Baltimore as the home of the Preakness -- a race that officials long worried could flee the city, and perhaps even the state. Pimlico also will become Maryland's thoroughbred racing hub, with a new synthetic track touted as the safest surface for horses. Races would be run 140 days a year, up from the 23 dates in 2023. The goal is to uplift the sport's sagging image and attract a new generation of horse racing fans with modern amenities, including a new clubhouse and a modern sportsbook.

For the community, there will be a 1,000-person event space that could host proms and other large parties, which officials say will create a new income stream for Pimlico. The project includes $10 million in housing for track workers. And Pimlico's infield would be available for community events like festivals and concerts. There is also the possibility of a hotel, parking garages, retail and other development on the site. The plan calls for allocating 10% of the track's profits to the neighborhood and exposing local students to racing and hospitality careers.

"The state is betting on itself -- and we're going all in," Moore responded to an email query. He labeled the investment a "transformative deal" that would benefit both Pimlico and the local community.

Such urban-focused sports and entertainment developments around the country have yielded mixed results. Some investments have worked, but others haven't paid off for surrounding neighborhoods. And there's always the danger that success could bring unwanted gentrification. Nevertheless, community leaders agree with Moore that it's worth a try.

Moore's optimistic outlook contrasts with the currently bleak state of horse racing, suggesting that Maryland's bet on Pimlico is far from a sure thing. The sport's popularity has been declining, with the industry reporting the number of races, fans and betting revenue dwindling across the country as other legal gambling options proliferate. The danger racing poses to horses is a major hurdle in the sport's bid to generate a new fan base. An estimated 2,000 horses die each year from racing-related injuries, according to Horseracing Wrongs, which advocates abolition of the sport.

In a 2019 poll commissioned by The Jockey Club, an industry group, nearly seven in 10 likely voters called horse fatalities a "very important" issue for the sport.

Attendance at Maryland's two thoroughbred tracks, Laurel Race Course and Pimlico, was down 66% between 2013 and 2022, even as the number of racing days increased, according to the Maryland Racing Commission, which oversees the state's horse racing industry. Over the past decade, the tracks averaged just 2,500 fans per day, not including the coronavirus years of 2020 and 2021, according to a state consultant's report.

Meanwhile, the Stronach Group, the private owner of Pimlico and Laurel, has consistently reported to state officials that it is losing money. Over the past two years, the company said that it did not turn a profit on its most popular event, the Preakness.

So if horse racing is bleeding fans and money, how can it help Park Heights?

Pimlico Race Course sprawls over 140 acres of northwest Baltimore. The grounds are surrounded by tall fences, lined with trees and hedges, offering only glimpses of the concentric racing ovals and bucolic infield from the surrounding streets. The effect has been to wall off the community from what for years was a major economic asset. Pimlico is the most famous building in the neighborhood, but it stands apart from the rest of Park Heights.

The community is home to about 22,000 people, and for generations it has struggled with a host of challenges, including violent crime, widespread drug addiction, truancy and substandard housing.

"When I was a kid, every corner from Park Circle [on the neighborhood's southern end] up to Rodgers [on the northern end, near Pimlico], was its own different drug shop," said Scott, who recently turned 40. "The reason I am in public service is because the first time I saw someone shot, I was outside playing basketball at like 6 or 7 years old."

There are many fine blocks in the neighborhood, some lined with stone-front row homes and tidy lawns. New development, including several apartment buildings and streets filled with rebuilt townhomes, have sprung up in recent years. But more obvious are the hundreds of decaying buildings and acres of vacant lots that scar Park Heights. Some of the vacant land extends for entire blocks, in part the result of a city effort that demolished more than 400 structures in the area since 2010, according to local development officials.

The commercial strips closest to Pimlico are mostly a collection of convenience stores, barber shops, carry-outs and small West Indian restaurants.

Community leaders have long complained that the track does nothing for local businesses. The sprinkling of racing fans who show up during the short spring meet are virtually invisible outside Pimlico's gates. Even on Preakness weekend, when tens of thousands of racing fans stream into the track, betting millions of dollars, the action does not spill over appreciably into the neighborhood.

"Here's a fun fact that is a challenge for me sometimes to swallow ..." said Yolanda E. Jiggetts, chief executive officer of Park Heights Renaissance, a community development organization. "These businesses in Park Heights actually lose money historically during the Preakness."

Elizabeth Wiseman, board co-chair of the Pimlico Community Redevelopment Compact, explained that during Preakness it is impossible to park on the street. Plus, she said, few Preakness goers even think to spend time or money in the neighborhood. "There is not the type of synergy we'd like to see in the future where people are walking fluidly from the track to the stores and restaurants," she said.

Community leaders say they aren't solely relying on the Pimlico project to uplift the neighborhood. A rebuilt Pimlico could be the catalyst Park Heights needs to boost its image and speed ongoing improvements, but in recent years, Jiggetts' organization also has guided the building of several new housing developments and deployed a team of workers that cuts overgrown lawns, cleans alleys and annually removes more than a hundred tons of trash dumped in the neighborhood.

The group has also assembled a list of initiatives it hopes to complete over the next five years, including giving home-preservation grants to nearly 2,000 residents, launching new job training programs and developing additional new housing.

In all, the wish list of upgrades carries a price tag of more than $100 million, and community leaders believe a rebuilt Pimlico can help generate the momentum -- and money -- needed to fulfill it.

"It is something much larger than just horse racing," said Desiree Eades, a real estate and development consultant for Park Heights Renaissance. "That's why development [of the track] is so important."

After years of feeling locked out of the business of the race track, many say they are encouraged that the neighborhood's perspective is finally being considered alongside the needs of horse racing.

"For people in a community that most of the time feels like they're not heard, they were heard," said Bishop Troy Randall, founder of @The House, a social service program. "And not only heard, they were respected."

Still, there is cause for skepticism. Given the declining popularity of horse racing, the fear is that Pimlico's facelift might be coming too late to help Park Heights.

May 11, a Saturday, was the third day of Pimlico's spring meet, aided by pleasant weather with the sun peeking through the clouds. Yet hardly anybody was at the track. All but a handful of the long lines of betting windows were closed. The couple hundred horse players in the place were able to spread out at banquet tables and benches facing simulcast screens and red picnic tables lined up near the rail next to the track's home stretch.

"When we were pulling up to the parking lot, it was a little bleak to see so many empty parking spaces," said Atlas Pyke, who was at the track with his mother, Joyce Lombardi. "We basically drove right up to the rail." Both Pyke and Lombardi said they hoped a rebuilt track would draw more people to Pimlico. But the reality may be that horse racing is simply not popular anymore, they said.

"I'm not sure that it's a sport that everyone can relate to or even condone," said Lombardi, who grew up riding thoroughbreds in rural Maryland. "It's not great for horses."

Maryland's equine industry generates $2 billion annually in economic impact, state officials say, with $600 million of it tied to horse racing. The industry is widely regarded as a cultural pillar of Maryland, which Cross, of the racetrack authority, said has more horses per capita than any other state in the country. Overall, the equine business is responsible for a quarter of Maryland's greenspace, he added.

"There's a disproportionate state impact in the continuation of the business," Cross said. "But in order to have that economic impact be sustainable and continue, you need a big investment of capital. And the returns on the capital just aren't enough for a private, for-profit operator to put in $400 million to $500 million, as we're about to do."

Under terms of the deal, the Preakness will stay at Pimlico this year and next, then move 21 miles southwest to Laurel while the facility is rebuilt. The hope is to return the event to Pimlico by 2027. After that, Laurel -- located on more than 200 acres of prime land in the prosperous suburbs between Baltimore and Washington. D.C. -- is slated to close.

Maryland officials expressed confidence they will be able to do what the Stronach Group could not in recent years: make money with Pimlico. "We think it will be more than profitable," Cross said.

A financially healthy Pimlico that shares its bounty with the surrounding neighborhood is something local leaders are counting on.

Long before running the local development board, Jiggetts grew up in Park Heights. As a little girl, she would accompany her grandmother to the track so frequently that she got to know many of the people who worked there. Some of them would keep an eye on her while her grandmother placed bets. The track taught Jiggetts to love horses, but it also taught her the dangers of gambling. She says her grandmother fell into debt because of losses at the track.

"You know, that was her favorite pastime but also her addiction," Jiggetts said. Now, she hopes the track can give something back. She wants to see people coming to Pimlico visiting local coffee shops, or dining at local restaurants after the races.

Banking on horse racing to help struggling Park Heights might be a long shot, but for many people from the neighborhood it looks like their best bet.

"You can see that stuff's starting to happen," Scott said. "People want to come back. Investment is happening. Reopening the rec center. Renovating the pool for the first time since it was built. Doing all of those things. Pimlico will just help us to unlock that."