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.
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.