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.

tim almaguer speaks

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

Photo by: Mark Reutter

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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  • EJD1984

    Not only do we need the existing Recreation Centers, but more of them as well.  With all of the abandoned housing within the city, it’s very doubtful that a majority of them will ever be rehabbed and occupied again.

    I’d propose to take those large swathes of vacant housing and turn them into green space parks, with a dedicated Recreation & Community Centers. Not only would this engage the youth, but their parents as well. The bonus side-effect to this would be to also create a new neighborhood center, that could be used as a springboard to revitalize and attract new residents.

    Though the key to the the childhood obesity problem is getting the parents engaged in making the lifestyle changes for the whole family.

  • A very concerned citizen

    Grasping at straws

  • Unellu

    Rec centers surrounded by vegetable gardens, trees, parks and plenty of trails for walking and biking–and exercise machines inside–also nooks where kids can do their homework, supervised and safe–we desperately need this.  EJD1984–often when we change the kids we can also change the parents.  Kids can teach the parents too.

  • Wally Pinkard

    Could it be possible to organize regular citizens with various skills to help improve the physical infrastructure of some of these buildings? I did some rehab work on my house and I know many other people that have as well. Anyone can paint. With one weekend of sweat equity I am sure that we could make a difference in some of these buildings at very low cost.  Materials could even be purchased at a place like the Loading Dock (or perhaps donated).

  • Giving Up on Baltimore.

    The National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s report on alternatives to a new jail for youth charged as adults confirms Ms. Ferebee’s statements. Not only could we avoid building a new facility, we could reduce the population in the current one. We just need to make smart investments for our youth, such as after-school programming and services provided by recreation centers.

    But we’re good old Baltimore, so we’ll always do the exact opposite of what’s proven to work.

  • Wtf, Baltimore?

    Does anyone else find it hilarious that Rec & Parks will fund 1st Thursdays in Mt. Vernon, where people publicly get intoxicated, ruin the already grass-less park, and cause unfavorable traffic but will close rec centers for children looking to further their minds and bodies??

    Just saying. Baltimore, where the f*** are your priorities??

  • Kim Trueheart

    This administration continues to show a lack of creative and innovative problem solving.  Disingenuous public policy towards our young citizens seems to be a common theme from our Mayor … her rhetoric belies her actions.  Quality programs and services for our youth appears to be an after-thought to the City’s priority to reduce the physical infrastructure burden of managing or in this case poorly managing recreation centers.  Decades of neglect has devolved into the NO OTHER CHOICE but close them solution.  If our Mayor has the least bit of concern for our children she’d be pushing hard to lead US in developing a comprehensive strategic plan to address the years of municipal  DISS-Investment in our children (schools, recs, after-school programs).  Instead she throws band-aids and short sighted crumbs on the floor and tells US to take it or leave it … Many of US have decided NOT to take her crumbs and are demanding so much more.  Thanks to organizations like Safe and Sound for leading the call for better solutions which will produce greater outcomes for our children … BMore we can DO better!

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