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Rec centers as the centerpiece of citywide obesity effort

Partner with Johns Hopkins and other health institutions to fight obesity, youth advocate says at CPHA forum last night.

Above: Tim Almaguer speaking at last night’s forum on the future of Baltimore’s rec centers.

Tim Almaguer, who helped turn Patterson Park into one of the most popular destinations for city residents, said Baltimore should make its rec centers the focus of a bold initiative on childhood obesity.

Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities have integrated recreation and parks into public health campaigns, Almaguer said, speaking at a forum sponsored by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) last night.

He contrasted those other cities’ programs with the steady erosion of municipal youth programs, rec centers and park outlays in Baltimore.

Thirty years ago, Almaguer said, the Recreation and Parks Department operated more than 120 rec centers, while other agencies, such as the Baltimore public housing authority, ran dozens more.

Just hours before the meeting, the Rawlings-Blake administration released its final plans to reduce the number of rec centers from the current 55 to 31.

The plan includes closing as many as 14 facilities – four in August and the others sometime later if private operators do not step forward.

The city is also building three new centers whose capital funding was approved by city voters several years ago.

60% of Cleveland’s Expenditures

Almaguer, former executive director of the Friends of Patterson Park who now works for the child advocacy group Safe and Sound Campaign, was one of a half dozen speakers who argued for greater expenditures on rec facilities by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Almaguer said Baltimore spends $58 per resident on rec centers and parks – 48% below the national average and considerably less than cities with similar demographics such as Pittsburgh ($99 per resident) and Cleveland ($102). Only “good old Detroit,” he said, contributes less than Baltimore – $27 per resident.

Another trend among cities is to partner with medical institutions to promote healthier lifestyles among children and young adults.

Following the example of Kaiser Permanente, which is underwriting rec centers in Denver, Almaguer said Rawlings-Blake should call on Johns Hopkins and other major institutions to sponsor youth recreation programs to deal with the skyrocketing increase in childhood obesity, which is translating into type 1 and 2 diabetes and cancer in teens and young adults.

Surveys show that only 17% of teenagers get the recommended one hour of moderately vigorous physical activity a day.

Mayor’s Plan Brings Rec into 21st Century

Bill Tyler, chief of the recreation bureau, defended the mayor’s plan for fewer rec centers, saying the program will underwrite more centrally located facilities that will serve all ages with longer hours, better equipment and more staff.

“We’re not here to debate decisions that have been made,” Tyler warned, as his Powerpoint screen shifted to the slogan “The time is NOW!”

He then showed pictures of rec centers where water fountains and some toilets are unusable and lockers and gym ceilings in a state of disrepair.

Carolyn D. Wainwright, president of the Rec and Parks Advisory Board, said “it’s dismaying to me that we’re only 1%, a sliver, of the [city’s budget] pie. It dismays me that we’re a city that doesn’t put our vulnerable ones, our children, first.”

Wainwright said that she thought the Rec and Parks budget was at a “crossroads” about two years ago.

“I thought, ‘We can’t go any further down.’ Boy, I was wrong. We went down further.”

While criticizing the repeated cutbacks to the agency, Wainwright endorsed Tyler’s approach of closing some centers and building more centrally located facilities, saying, “We don’t need teeny, tiny centers dotted around the city.”

Redirect Spending from Jail Plan

Hathaway Ferebee, executive director at the Safe and Sound Campaign, told 176 registered attendees, including members of the Occupy Baltimore group, that the city has money to build a world-class rec network, but needs to claim it from the state.

She was referring to the $80 million in capital funds allocated by Maryland for a 120-bed jail for city youth charged as adult offenders. Gov. Martin O’Malley has pushed for the jail to settle a U.S. Department of Justice ruling that the city’s practice of holding youth with adults violates the law.

Ferebee said O’Malley has other options to comply with federal law, such as developing programs that would reduce the number of youths held in detention in the first place.

Most effective, she said, would be expanding the athletic, artistic and civic activities for young people, especially those at  risk, through more inviting and creative rec centers.

O’Malley and Rawlings-Blake have been strong advocates of the new jail.

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