Baltimore officials withdrew Wednesday a lawsuit against the owners of Pimlico Race Course, abandoning legal confrontation for negotiations over how to rehabilitate the aging venue and keep the running of the Preakness Stakes in the city.
The spring saw ratcheting tensions between city leaders and the track’s owner, The Stronach Group.
During the regular General Assembly session in Annapolis, the company unsuccessfully sought bond funding to begin creating a so-called super track at Laurel Park, a project that could sideline Pimlico.
Then, in March, the city filed the lawsuit, asking a judge to block any attempt to move the Preakness to Laurel and to allow the city to seize Pimlico.
“This really is a substantial moment in time,” Rifkin said. “We will be exploring all available options. It’s an opportunity that I think all of us take as being quite significant.”
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in a statement that he was “pleased that we have reached this withdrawal agreement and standstill.”
City leaders see the Northwest Baltimore track’s future as closely entwined with the health of the surrounding neighborhood. But the site is in disrepair and little used for horseracing — the one weekend each year it‘s the home of the Preakness being its major moneymaker.
The discussions set to begin under the rapprochement announced Wednesday will likely focus on the scope of the renovations at Pimlico and Laurel and what portion of the cost the company would bear and what might fall to taxpayers.
The preliminary agreement between the two sides that led to the lawsuit being dropped was spelled out in a carefully worded sentence in the statement from the mayor’s office. It appeared to indicate the city and Stronach alike aim to keep the Preakness in Baltimore.
It read: “The parties have discussed the resumption of good-faith negotiations concerning the ways and means by which to revitalize, renovate and/or redevelop Pimlico and other thoroughbred racing facilities in the state, with Pimlico as a priority, in order to maintain and enhance the state’s thoroughbred racing industry, the city’s capacity to host the Preakness Stakes, provide for sustainable year-round racing in the state, and to further economic and community development and the public’s interest at large.”
Rifkin said those words were the “product of a good bit of discussion,” but he declined to characterize the agreement further.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the talks are expected to begin in coming weeks and that the mayor’s “baseline” is that the 145-year-old Preakness continue to be run at Pimlico.
The Baltimore Sun reported in February that Stronach used 90 percent of the state aid it received for renovations in the past five years at Laurel. The finding prompted Baltimore political leaders to charge that the company was purposefully overlooking the city track — a claim Stronach executives rejected.
But the city advanced the argument in court. In the lawsuit, filed when Democrat Catherine Pugh was mayor, the city alleged the disparity in investment by the owners could create an “’emergency or disaster’ to justify transfer of the Preakness to Laurel” under a state law that otherwise requires the Preakness to stay in Baltimore.
Rifkin credited Young, who took over when Pugh resigned in May, with abandoning the confrontational strategy and “ill-advised” lawsuit.
“The sense we get now from the new administration is one of cooperation, discussion and good faith negotiations,” Rifkin said. “That’s an infinitely better strategy.”
The future of Pimlico has long been a subject of debate and government studies. In December, the Maryland Stadium Authority released a sweeping redevelopment plan that was projected to cost $424 million, an amount Stronach said is far too costly. Horseracing advocates suggested a scaled-down rehabilitation at half the cost.
“There any number of good ideas about how to renovate and rehabilitate the aging facilities and the ultimate question is how to fund it,” Rifkin said. “That will take a good deal of thought and hopefully the participation of the state, as well as the city.”
State Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, said she hopes representatives of the state will be involved in the negotiations because they are likely to have to cover some of the costs.
“This is a new opportunity to start anew and use this Preakness as leverage, the leverage that we need to ensure these communities get the attention that they deserve and which has evaded them for many years,” Carter said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.