Will they stay open or won’t they? The fate of the Baltimore’s 55 recreation centers was thrown into confusion last night when two top officials offered different scenarios of their future.
Bill Tyler, chief of recreation, flatly told the City Council at an informational hearing that no rec center will close after Dec. 31. “Centers are not closing,” he said, flashing a PowerPoint slide with exactly those same words.
A few minutes later, Andrew W. Kleine, city budget director, said just as flatly: “We don’t have funding to operate all 55” rec centers after Dec 31. Kleine said that “some tradeoffs” would have to be made to keep the centers going until they can be spun off to non-profit and other groups.
Adding to the disharmony – or perhaps it was meant to bring clarity – Ian T. Brennan, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, handed reporters a copy of the Recreation and Parks budget with this sentence underlined: “As many as 10 centers could close, depending on funding, costs and the number of partnerships.” Next to the sentence, Brennan wrote, “Approved by Council.”
Parsing the Language
Several Council members found it difficult to reconcile the statements of Tyler and Kleine. Chairman Nicholas D’Adamo Jr. called attention to the disconnect when he insisted that Tyler needn’t give a “final answer” until he consulted with his boss, Recreation and Parks director Gregory Bayor.
Despite the warning, Tyler forged headed. Referring to conversations he had with Bayor, he said, “We are in agreement to keep rec centers open” through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Such a commitment, he acknowledged, would require about $300,000 for staff costs and minimal maintenance. The department doesn’t readily have that money.
Asked if the administration planned to submit a supplemental budget to cover the cost, Kleine said, “There are no plans to put in for additional money.” He added, however, that money currently allocated to pay for improvements at “model” rec centers could be delayed, presumably freeing up funds for existing facilities.
But this would require the support of Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who has repeatedly said that keeping all 55 rec centers open is not financially viable. No one from the mayor’s office spoke at the hearing.
City Schools “Hesitant”
The ultimate solution, according to Tyler, is to find community and non-profit partners willing to take over the centers. The agency expects to find more groups in a second round of RFPs (Request for Proposals).
The first round of bids was highly disappointing, with just six bidders seeking to operate 13 or 15 centers (the number varies). The city has not determined which of these vendors is acceptable in terms of financial and operational capability.
Another plan was to ask the school system to run rec centers located inside school buildings. The Rawlings-Blake administration repeatedly cited the public schools as an ideal partner.
But Trish S. Edwards, chief of staff for Andres A. Alonso, CEO of the school system, told the Council last night that school principals are “hesitant” about the program and “we are not at a point” to take over any rec centers.
Money is the main sticking point. “This is a plan without resources,” Edwards said, “and schools would have to redirect money from their core academic programs” to fund the rec centers.
Without additional resources, she expressed doubt that local schools could support year-around rec centers, even if they were so inclined.
“Highway to Nowhere”
The rec bureau’s RFP came under criticism from several quarters. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the 60-page document “user-unfriendly” and said it was more suited for building highways than forging partnerships with community groups.
“This was literally the highway to nowhere,” Clarke said of the first RFP, looking unhappy and calling on the administration to adopt less intimidating language.
Her criticism was seconded by speakers who came to the podium during the hearing, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people.
None of the speakers voiced support of the mayor’s plan as currently presented.
State Delegate Mary L. Washington (43rd district) said she hoped the hearing would “slow things down” and give the administration time to rethink its approach to involving the community.
The model of closing small neighborhood centers and consolidating programs into area facilities, she argued, may not be based on the needs of Baltimore: “This may work very well in Montgomery County or out on the West Coast, but we need a system that works here in our neighborhoods.”
Leon C. Purnell, executive director of The Men’s Center, said that closing the Oliver Rec Center in East Baltimore would have devastating consequences. “Why would you possibly close something that keeps young people off the street,” he asked.
Councilman D’Adamo said that many rec centers were, in fact, underused by city youth and probably should be closed. At the same time, he said the city should go to professional sports organizations like the Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles and ask them to sponsor centers.
“Go and say, ‘Run some of these for us.’ The athletes need tax write-offs and have foundations to work through,” D’Adamo said, adding that he thought his idea was so good that he planned to pitch it to Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.
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