For years, the fence surrounding the Pimlico Race Course felt insurmountable to its Park Heights neighbors.

The thousands of racing fans and revelers would flood through — clogging the streets and offering residents little more than the opportunity to sell their lawns as parking spots — then vanish just as quickly. Many in Park Heights never went into the race track themselves.

It felt like the track and the neighborhood had only one thing in common: Both were in decline.

As officials convened over the last year to find a way to fix Maryland horse racing — and the dilapidated track that still serves as the home of one of the sport’s Triple Crown races — Park Heights Renaissance CEO Yolanda Jiggetts echoed a plea she’s heard from the residents of one of Baltimore’s historic but struggling neighborhoods. Even though there has often been separation between Pimlico and its surrounding community, their fates are intrinsically linked.

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“When this redevelopment thrives,” Jiggetts said, “Preakness thrives.”

Last week was a kind of starting gun for the Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority (MTROA), which celebrated the signing of state legislation that helps clear the path for $400 million to pour into revamping Pimlico and building a new training facility (at a location still to be determined). The state would also create a not-for-profit agency to run thoroughbred racing.

It’s an ambitious gambit that attempts to tackle problems on multiple fronts: a struggling state racing industry, out-of-date facilities, and taking over the racetrack from Stronach (which has reported losses in the millions). And Park Heights has a lot riding on the bet.

The community is hoping to receive benefits that state delegate Malcolm Ruff, whose district includes the track, called “unprecedented.” The final text of the bill includes $10 million for Parks Heights Renaissance to use toward workforce housing in conjunction with the MTROA and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The MTROA will also expand and include a voting member of Parks Heights Renaissance as it considers the design, commercial elements and other key features of Pimlico. The new plans are expected to feature a hotel by the track, an amenity that locals hope will help make the visitors for Preakness consider patronizing local businesses.

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National Treasure, #1, ridden by jockey John Velazquez, wins the Preakness Stakes on Preakness Day at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 20, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

To community members, it feels like the fences are starting to come down.

“There has been a lot of distrust as to what was going to happen — when is the commitment going to happen, and is the commitment really going to consider the needs of the community?” Ruff said. “I would attest we have a product now that really brings all the stakeholders into consideration, especially the community.”

A chunk of the profits from Pimlico are also expected to go toward Park Heights — but “profits” aren’t usually associated with horse racing in Maryland these days. Much of the supposed benefits will come only if the state manages to prop up the consistently slumping industry, an unsolvable problem for the last few decades. Even as the bill advanced to Gov. Wes Moore’s desk, The Banner’s Pamela Wood reported some lawmakers cast their votes reluctantly.

Still, Park Heights is willing to take that bet.

On Monday, about a hundred people gathered on the 4400 block of Park Heights Avenue — a row of beauty salons, cellphone stores and churches — as the area was added to the city’s roster of Main Street Districts. Mayor Brandon Scott, a Park Heights native, handed over a $100,000 check to help revitalize the area.

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It will help, sure, but that’s the sort of money that might replace streetlights, not change the trajectory of a neighborhood.

While there are construction projects in the area, including new developments and a new library, Jiggetts admitted it’s easy to get impatient for real resources — the kind of resources a successful partnership with Pimlico could help provide. In the months leading up to the bill vote, Jiggetts said, Park Heights residents were in overdrive trying to make sure state leaders understood the depth of the need for safety, economic development and housing.

“We educated them on what’s happening in Park Heights — what’s the need, the disinvestment that’s been happening, and all of the work that’s been happening with a little bit of money, pitching and scraping to try to pull that together,” she said. “What would it look like if we actually had sufficient funding to do this work, to activate everything?”

Jiggetts said that in the last few years, there have been some improvements in the dynamic: Hundreds of Preakness tickets have been given out to local residents, allowing them to see what goes on inside Maryland’s top racing event. Park Heights receives a percentage of merchandise sales for Preakness. She’s interested in creating work pipelines that would encourage young people in the neighborhood to explore becoming horsemen.

State leadership will have a stronger mandate to invest in the community, reflected in the changes to the bill. State Del. Sandy Rosenberg pointed out how important it was to residents to keep the Preakness at Pimlico for 2025 in the midst of renovation. The Preakness will be held in Laurel in 2026, but state leaders expect it to return in 2027 — an ambitious timeline, to be sure.

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MTROA Chairman Greg Cross said one of the first things he heard on a tour of Park Heights was concern. Is it going to happen this time? residents wondered.

“It’s not just a hope,” Cross said. “This is actually happening this time.”

In spite of the history, there is burgeoning optimism. Lisa Bleich and Paula Byrd — entrepreneurs who run Wildseed Gear Library just off of Park Heights Avenue — say they’ve seen better integration between the track and the surrounding neighborhood. For a long time, they said, it was a relationship marked chiefly by resentment.

It feels to them like Park Heights is on the cusp of a come-up, and the new partnership could push it over the top.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Bleich said. “It feels like a legacy that’s really important.”

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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