On Friday, March 29, I had the opportunity to tour the worker housing at the Laurel Park racetrack with Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, as the Maryland General Assembly considers taking the unusual action of mandating that MEDCO provide a $120 million loan to the Stronach Group.

During our visit, I learned that pictures provided to me last week by a horse industry whistleblower were accurate. A county inspection that took place the two days earlier – after the Sun first reported the horrific living conditions – found unsanitary living conditions, non-working smoke alarms, uncovered wires and outlets, and numerous other violations.

Maryland’s Racetrack Facilities Renewal Account (RFRA) law specifically stipulates that quality living conditions are a prerequisite for receiving funds. After more than $100 million in taxpayer-subsidized RFRA spending – and 16 years after a Baltimore Sun report highlighted the “slum-like” conditions at Laurel Park – the Stronach Group has not lived up to its responsibilities.

Therefore, accountability – and decent housing funded privately by the Stronach Group – must be required before additional funds and financing mechanisms are approved. We owe that much to the scores of Marylanders living in squalor at Laurel Park. Additionally, the Stronach Group’s failure to follow the law for years cannot be used as a justification to provide Laurel’s owners with even more state financing.

Here is what I saw on our visit to Laurel Park:

We cannot normalize or accept these conditions by saying: “that’s how people live on the backstretch,” or “these are immigrants from difficult backgrounds.” I would never let anyone I care for live in such conditions.

Today, we are told by Stronach Group representatives that new housing is right around the corner – if we just give them a taxpayer-subsidized $120 million loan. But in 2003, Laurel Park’s top executive said that Stronach would spend millions of dollars on new backstretch housing. In the ensuing 16 years, Stronach built zero new housing. And, indeed, while we are promised that Stronach has purchased “building materials,” there is no evidence of any new construction at Laurel Park.

This lack of progress on housing is reminiscent of what the people of Maryland were promised in 2002, according to the Baltimore Sun (Plans for Pimlico: Raze and Rebuild It, 8/5/2002):

“Racing magnate Frank Stronach said he wants to tear down Pimlico Race Course, build a new track on the same site and take steps to help its Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.

‘I think the whole track needs to be torn down,’ said Stronach…
‘Pimlico must remain; there's too much tradition involved,’ he said. ‘But it would be totally rebuilt from scratch. We would flatten it completely.’

Stronach made his remarks - his first public comment about specific plans for Pimlico - during an interview with The Sun on Saturday at the Saratoga racetrack here.

He said he would like the demolition to begin immediately after the Preakness in May. In 2004, the Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, would be held at Laurel Park as a new Pimlico was constructed for the 2005 Preakness.

‘…We'll go way out of our way to assure people - the racing commission, horsemen - that we're committed to Pimlico. ... The racing world will look at us by what we do at Pimlico. It's a top priority.’"

This is part of the history that must inform our deliberations. And as we consider a $120 million subsidized loan, I remained puzzled as to why a company owned by a Canadian billionaire family cannot secure a normal business loan to complete its project – especially given the millions of Maryland tax dollars the Stronach Group receives annually.

The living conditions I saw last week at Laurel, and my knowledge of Stronach’s record in Maryland, lead me to one conclusion. The General Assembly must require the Stronach Group to build decent, humane housing, using its own funds, before the Maryland General Assembly even considers providing additional financing.

Delegate Nick Mosby represents Baltimore’s 40th Legislative District in the Maryland General Assembly.