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Pimlico Planners Can Glean Lessons From Other Renovations

March 15, 2017
There are few people in the country who know more about turning "antiquated" and iconic sports venues into facilities that are relevant -- and profitable -- in the 21st century than Janet Marie Smith.

Orioles fans know and admire Smith for her work on Oriole Park at Camden Yards, first as part of the original team that built the stadium, and then as part of the team hired by Peter Angelos to update the stadium as it approached its 20th anniversary. 

In between her Orioles stints, Smith worked for the Atlanta Braves, helping the team open Turner Field, and then -- more importantly for our purposes -- with the Boston Red Sox as they modernized Fenway Park.

For the last nearly five years, Smith has been senior vice president for planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading the team's efforts to update Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962 and is the third-oldest, continuously-used park in Major League Baseball.

But even though Smith's work has taken her across the country, she still calls Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood home.

And living a mile or so from Pimlico Race Course has left her "passionate" about the future for the home of the Preakness. 

"I've often hoped that perhaps if Pimlico has a chance at being revived that it will be done in a way that's architecturally sensitive to its current scale," she said.

Last month, the Maryland Stadium Authority released its long-awaited study on the future of Pimlico. The study, which cost $175,000, stated "Pimlico Race Course is antiquated and in need of substantial renovations."

The study pegged the cost of the renovations to be between $248 and $321 million, and the Stronach Group, the track's Canadian-based owners, have said it would need a "huge public commitment" to move forward.

Smith pointed to upgrades and renovations done at another Stronach property, Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., as a "good model" of what Pimlico might look to. 

"In the course of working for the Dodgers and looking at the other sporting venues around Los Angeles, I've been particularly impressed with how Santa Anita has handled similar issues," she said. "They did a great job. It was a multi-year renovation; they did a little bit every year, and they got to the finish line. 

And it wasn't all about attracting "premium" customers who would spend a lot of money and were looking for "an enclosed, air-conditioned dining experience," Smith said, but also about how to attract families looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon with the kids.

"They took their infield, and in a very deliberate move, they made it a family place. So on any given Sunday, you go there and they've got big blowup things up, and it's like a little kids' carnival," she said. "Yes, you can still buy a drink, and you can still buy a beer, but the over-arching image is that it's a family place. It's a beautiful, clean, crisp environment where you want to go and socialize and be outdoors for the day."

The $40 million project, which was completed over several years, also included upgrades to several key areas of the grandstand, updated technology and upgrades to the park's 13 luxury suites.

Smith also said comparing racetracks to baseball stadiums is not the apples-to-oranges example some might think. They are both sports that don't demand a fan's attention 100 percent of the time.

"They both have a lot of leisure time. That is the appeal," she said. "It's a very different pace and a different vibe.

"So how do you present an environment where [the fans' enjoyment] is not solely dependent on the outcome of the game or even your level of understanding of the game? It's got to be a compelling experience and one that demands both your time and your dollars."

In Boston, Smith said, that meant asking "how do we renovate Fenway and provide new appendages to the building that will give fans and players the kinds of amenities today's industry standards require?'

"Some of the first things we did at Fenway Park were not to go in and do renovation in a traditional sense, but to go in and say, ‘How do we change the behavior of this building, so that the concourses feel wider, so that the bathrooms are big and new again, so that the concession stands are large enough that you can have cooking within them, not just warmed up stuff? How do we do all that within the flavor of what feels like your grandfather's ballpark?'"

Smith also said it is important to preserve the "architectural integrity" of older venues, such as Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium or Pimlico.

"As you approach any renovation where the building has that sort of character, that has that type of memories associated with it, you really want it to come alive," Smith said.

At Fenway and Dodger Stadium, Smith said the teams were "very anxious to see history put front and center. We don't want fans to think they're walking back into time when they're walking into the building, but we want them to feel the timeless quality of the building, and to feel the history and the relevance of all the events that it housed over the decades.

"And you don't have to do anything more than look at the movies in your library to see what horseracing has meant to America."

And, as a Pimlico neighbor, Smith thinks part of the goal of any track redevelopment would only do good for the neighborhood.

"A renovated Pimlico could lift up the neighborhood rather than drag it down," she said. "Not every horse race is going to be a big event; you're not having the Preakness every week.

"One of the questions that has to be asked is how do we make this a place where people say, ‘Wow, it's a beautiful weekend, what should we do?' And that ... one of the top five things [on their mind is] to spend some time in a beautiful venue, with the offerings that you would expect to find in other entertainment areas."

Issue 231: March 2017