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Rawlings-Blake rejects calls to keep all city recreation centers open

Amid criticism from Jack Young and others, Mayor promises better results in second round of bidding.

CLIFTON PARK REC CENTER EMPTY

The city plans to convert this dilapidated pavilion at Clifton Park to a model recreation center. Reconstruction, however, is months away.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

Calling demands that all city rec centers remain open “not acceptable,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake today described her plan to spin off some centers to community groups as “creative, innovative and never seen before in Baltimore.”

Speaking to reporters this morning, she said, “Yes, I was disappointed by the number of bids” – 12 in all – that came in response to her administration’s call for outside parties to take over the rec centers.

She said she “will work with communities and non-profits” to assure that her program to reduce the number of city-run facilities from 55 to about 30 stays on course.

She said there will be a second round of bidding to encourage more groups to submit proposals to run the facilities.

She said, “I think it is very easy to say, ‘let’s keep everything open’ without a real plan to do that. I have a plan.” Yesterday City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young told The Brew that he is against any rec center closings.

Rawlings-Blake said that her long-range plan was working – that ground has been broken for two new rec centers and other facilities will be expanded under a set of proposals developed by a task force she formed last year.

The new construction at Clifton Park and Morrell Park – which the mayor alluded to in her remarks – was, in fact, planned before the task force was convened. The new centers will be funded through a $12 million bond issue that was approved by city voters before Rawlings-Blake became mayor.

Concern over Closings

The possible closing of as many as 18 rec centers after Dec. 31 has roiled the City Council, whose members are catching flak from some community groups and parents alarmed that local rec centers may be closed after Christmas.

After weeks of silence on the issue, Council President Young broke ranks with the administration and said he not only opposes any closings, but believes increased funding is essential. He called improvements to rec centers a “public safety strategy” that keeps young people off the streets and out of potential trouble.

Other city officials have privately wondered how the administration expects private groups to take over centers that the mayor today characterized as “dilapidated and underused” without a large public subsidy.

To encourage outside parties to bid on the centers, the city said it would provide “seed money” of $50,000 or $100,000 to six rec centers that “transitioned” from city to private management.

"Truth is, we've spent 20 years investing in catching criminals rather than preventing crime by supporting these centers and programs," said Councilman Bill Henry. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

"Truth is, we've spent 20 years investing in catching criminals rather than preventing crime by supporting these centers," said Councilman Bill Henry. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

With only 12 bids on 55 centers – and only one bidder (Boys and Girls Club of Metro Baltimore) with a track record in rec management – the administration is scrambling to save its privatization plan.

The administration was depending on the Baltimore city schools to take over rec centers located inside school buildings. No bids, however, came from the schools.

Two of the five bidders are for-profit businesses that have few financial resources, according to their disclosure statements. Each would depend on yet-unsecured grant funds as well as the city’s seed money to operate a total of six centers.

City Council Hearings

Councilman Bill Henry (4th District) plans to hold public hearings on Nov. 2 to find out why only one community group – Park Heights Renaissance – bid on a rec center.

He said he believes the city’s RFP was partly to blame for scaring away potential bidders.

“Community groups were not prepared for a 60-page RFP or the insurance requirements of a high-end takeover,” he told The Brew today. He said the city needs to come up with ways for communities to run rec programs without the expense and potential liability of operating an entire facility.

He said he thinks a process is needed “to attract people who want to do something less than completely taking over but more than nothing,” he said, adding: “If what we think of as an RFP process leads to what we just had, I don’t want that.”

Henry also mused about the “circular, conservative” reasoning employed by those who argue that because some of the rec centers are underused or poorly maintained, they should be closed.

“Are some of these centers pretty crappy? Yes . . . Truth is, we spent the last 20 years investing in catching criminals rather than preventing crime by supporting these centers and programs.”

–Fern Shen contributed to this article.

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  • Ktrueheart

    Our Mayor has turned a complete deaf hear to the expectations and outcry from the citizens!  There has been a complete lack of transparency in this so called “plan” which has failed miserably.   A new strategy and accompanying plan is required and if we have to rely on the current administration for it, we’re in BIG trouble based on their track record.  Cute public statements fail to convey intent and desire to meaningfully engage in constructive discussions with communities who have made long-term investments in their neighborhood recreation centers.  Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods and this so called “plan” prepared by some aliens fails to embrace our culture, lifestyle and neighborhood philosophy … Someone needs to tell our Mayor this is BMore and there is no place like it!

    • Anonymous

      How has the plan failed miserably?  It has barely even been implemented.

      The article mentions that the 2 larger “hub” rec centers were already in the pipeline before the task force plan was released… That is because the task force plan just put on paper something that everyone in the field has known all along: that the network of tiny podunk rec centers needs to be replaced with a smaller number of larger centers, to improve quality while realizing economies of scale.

      That is the biggest problem with this city – it expects things to stay the way they have always been, while at the same time getting better.  You cant fix a problem without implimenting change.

      • Ktrueheart

        A “plan” that fails to get beyond step 1 without a major adjustment is a failure in my book!  A well reasoned, well vetted and broadly communicated public service change of the magnitude which effects over 1/4 of the City’s population should have been rolled out with a lot more transparency.  What we got instead was NOT Effective Implementation in any form.  The fact that this ill-conceived endeavor is still being forced upon the outraged citizenry is perplexing, arrogant and NOT the change we expected … Yes it’s a failure on multiple levels … things will get better when you and our Mayor show a little respect for the fact that most people are willing to embrace change and want to be a part of making my home town better!

  • http://twitter.com/jedweeks Jed Weeks

    But we do have $100 million to build a youth jail.

  • Raull Duke

    This Mayor has disproportionally invested in our youth’s
    incarceration and has expected failure from them (as seen in her budget), while
    not appropriately investing in our children’s future. While Rec Center
    programming, sports leagues and art classes are the expected norms and intentional
    services for much of Maryland’s counties, Baltimore’s leaders see these
    essential services as “low hanging fruit” for the budget pruners. Without
    access to Rec programs and parks, children will suffer and in the long term
    (and maybe in the short term) all Baltimore citizens will suffer – not only
    seen in crime stats, but also, teenage pregnancy, health issues and emergency
    room visits and a declining employment pool. No worries we can lure in a middle
    class with a Grand Prix and “get one free” coupons.

  • http://twitter.com/GennyDill Genny Dill

    There is a better way to do this.  There is no question that there are *some* centers that need serious intervention, however I feel that the Mayor is throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this one. 

    Each center needs to be looked at individually, and the issues addressed specifically.  There is a lot of waste that should be looked into, from under-performing staff to how city purchasing agreements strangle the budgets of centers, and a lot in-between.  I realize that the Mayor wants to settle this prior to Jan 1, but the fact is that our centers, our communities, and our citizens, deserve better than the current offer.  We need better.  We want better.  The Mayor can do better. 

    Madam Mayor, please take another look at this issue.  Let’s work together to find a way to ensure viability of centers, engage communities who utilize them, cut the fat where it still plainly exists, and resolve to keep as many city-run centers as possible!

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