About 125 people, including children, teenagers, grandmothers and members of a martial arts club, gathered on a Hampden street-corner last night to protest the city’s still-sketchy plan to privatize municipal recreation centers in Baltimore.
If the plan means closing the Roosevelt Park Recreation Center, a neighborhood institution at the intersection of Falls Rd. and 36th St., “it would be devastating,” said Genny Dill, interim president of the Roosevelt Park Recreation Center Council, who was part of the demonstration.
“Looking for a place to play? Can’t go to the rec center – Baltimore city closed it!” said one of the protesters’ signs.
Read another sign: “Water Fountains at Harborplace are pretty but … Take that money and keep our rec centers open!”
Citywide, 306,504 young people participated in after-school and out-of-school rec center programs last year. To a lesser degree, the facilities are used for adult and senior services. Except for this website, the city’s plan to privatize rec centers has received little scrutiny.
Roosevelt Park is still open, but supporters worry that could change. It was included on a list of rec centers the city sees as feasible to privatize. If no group comes forward to operate it, the center could close.
Extremely Important Part of Community
“This makes me really mad,” said Dill, who is also secretary of the Hampden Community Council. “That center is an extremely important part of this community.”
In an interview, Dill recited a long list of activities that take place there: there’s a playground, after-school recreation programs, homework help, Little League, senior programs. “I have a daughter who is starting in college this year but she used the center,” Dill said. “She made friends there, stayed out of trouble. It helped make her a success. I have a 10-year-old who uses the center now.”
“They can spend money to rebrand the Rec and Parks logo and they have to cut rec enters?” Dill fumed. “They have DPW workers gambling and drinking on the job! Money is being wasted all over this city.”
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who was among the protesters, has told the community that no serious bidders appear to be expressing interest in running the Hampden facility.
Another protester at the demonstration, Doug Armstrong, said the privatization program as described so far is underfunded and ill-defined.
“It is a ridiculous plan,” said Armstrong, a green party candidate running against Clarke in the 14th District in the Nov. election. “If you think this plan could possibly result in anything benefiting the community, there’s some swampland I’d like to sell you in Florida.”
Closure Is Not Our Goal
Bill Tyler, bureau chief of recreation, said the protests are misguided. He called the privatization plan an “out-of-the-box” solution to the absolute necessity of reducing operating costs and developing a better future for the rec program.
“My question is this: if not this plan, what plan?” he said in an interview with The Brew. “We can’t continue with the present system of limited services and staffing. Money is not as plentiful as it used to be. It would be nice if people accepted an out-of-the-box idea rather than [the city] just closing them [the centers] down and saying good luck.”
Tyler said the department’s goal is to place between 19 and 25 of the city’s 55 rec centers under private operation, which a task force says would save about $400,000 a year.
While he hopes that all rec centers will remain open, Tyler acknowledged that some rec centers could be closed if private operators do not step forward. “If there are no operators, there may be closure [of some centers], but closure is not our goal,” he said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that as many as 10 rec centers might be shut down in her annual budget plan last March.
December 31 Deadline
Private parties – such as non-profits, for-profits, community organizations and city schools – can bid on any of the city’s 55 rec centers. “It’s open to anyone with a history and track record of successful management,” Tyler said. “That includes grassroots organizations that have evolved in the shadows and can bring value to the community.”
The city has issued a RFP (Request for Proposals) with bids due next Wednesday, Oct. 12. Private groups were told in the RFP to be ready to take over a rec center by Monday, Nov. 14.
In practice, however, Tyler says he expects no rec center to be in private hands until the end of November. The overall transition to private management is set to be completed by December 31, he added.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake will make the final decision of what parties will be selected as rec center operators.
City to Offer Seed Money
At six of the to-be-privatized facilities, the city plans to offer subsidies for the first year of management. According to the RFP, “each award will amount to $50,000 for a recreation center less than 7,999 square feet, and $100,000 for facilities above 8,000 square feet.”
The RFP continues: “Proposers should submit plans which cover each scenario, i.e., without seed money, with $50,000 seed money and with $100,000 seed money.”
Recreation and Parks “will chose [stet] the six partnership agreements for the $50,000 or $100,000 grant based on the opinion and expertise of the Recreational Division Management.”
Tyler expects the city school system to bid on many rec centers that share space in school buildings. That space could be used for classrooms and other activities, with after-school programs open in the evening.
Publicity to Come after Operators Are Selected
Very little notice or publicity has been offered by the city regarding the rec centers plan. A task force that developed the privatization scheme presented its findings to Mayor Rawlings-Blake last December, but its report was not posted on the Recreation and Parks website until late August. (The Brew was the first to disclose the report’s findings).
Tyler said, however, that a “massive public outreach” will commence once the city has selected the operators.
“As soon as we are clear about who they are, we want to do a massive community outreach, with community forums where people can meet the new operators and have a say in terms of new or improved services,” he said.
But rec center users in neighborhoods other than Hampden may want to have a say before that time. Dill agrees.
“This has broader implications than just Hampden. I’m sure other neighborhoods will have similar concerns when they see their centers at risk,” she said. “We’re just the loudest and most obnoxious to grab attention.”