By Chris Landers
BALTIMORE – In the empty hall outside the Triple Crown Room on the second floor of Pimlico Racetrack Tuesday night, a loudspeaker announced a far-off race to an empty hall. The betting windows stood vacant. The Homestretch gift shop, empty, overlooked the immaculately kept field where every year at the Preakness horses and their riders take a shot at everlasting glory.
Inside the Triple Crown Room, though, the atmosphere was anything but dead. As Maryland politicians and track owners debated the future of the fabled track elsewhere, residents of Park Heights, the troubled neighborhood immediately surrounding the track, met to discuss the future of their community — and of a fund that has been there for decades.
The Pimlico Race Track Impact Fund, financed by state taxes paid by the track, has been set aside to benefit the residents within a two-mile radius of the track. Since the 1970s, that fund has been administered by a committee of residents and used to pay for everything from signs outside public schools to a summer jobs program for young people.
Earlier this year, the state legislature voted unanimously to take it away from neighborhood residents and transfer it to a new authority appointed by City Hall. Tuesday’s meeting was called to find out why.
“We had no knowledge of this bill,” said impact fund committee president Barbara Scott. “Nobody even informed us, asked for our opinion, or anything else.”
“If we hadn’t called this meeting, [the community] still wouldn’t know,” said fund committee member Valetta Brunt.
Scott and other residents seemed resigned to losing control of the fund. Resigned, but angry.
In recent years, the amount of money available to the neighborhood has shrunk with the decline of live racing at Pimlico to about a half million dollars. Next year’s proposed reduction in the number of days wouldn’t really change that. The law that created the fund sets a minimum contribution from the track and designates that it be used to offset the negative impact of the race track on the community.
Scott and the rest of her committee asked a collection of state delegates from the 40th and 41st districts – West and Northwest Baltimore – for their assurance that the law be changed to guarantee funding for two long-running programs. The first, a summer jobs program for 14 to 17-year-olds, would take $100,000 a year to continue, the second, a development corporation that has rehabbed 60 houses in the Park Heights neighborhood since its formation in 1987 according to director Florine Robinson, cost $200,000 annually.
Sheila Roles, who runs a clinic in the area, praised the employment program, through which she employed three teenagers this summer.
“This is giving kids something to do other than be on the corner,” Roles said. “There’s no rec center in the area, and to have a job and go out and get your own money everyday – that’s a good feeling even for a kid. I pray that they keep this program going. That’s what they need right now because we’re losing them to the streets.”
But Delegate Salima Siler Marriott (D-Baltimore), the sponsor of the law that shifted control of the fund, and the other delegates present, were unable to give the crowd definite assurances that their programs would continue.
Under the new law, allocation of the money will now be decided by the Pimlico Community Development Authority, an 11 member board headed by the Baltimore City Planning Director which will include five residents of the community. The board will begin meeting in October, according to Marriot, and other members have not been appointed.
Marriott told the residents that she believed establishing the new authority had been necessary because the Northwest Baltimore Corporation, which formerly administered some of the funds, dissolved earlier this year, leaving a vacuum.
She said a lack of community organization had been a hindrance to participating in city development programs, and the authority would give prospective investors the confidence to take an interest in the area and give the community the political clout to make sure the money stayed there.
Marriott faced stiff opposition from the residents. Her contention that “I believe I have the pulse of what the people want” drew loud boos.
Park Heights resident James Greene and others expressed concerns that the legislature was removing what little clout the residents had to determine the future of their community. “Weve been misled,” Greene said. “This isn’t about money. This is about control.”