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Parents protest city plan to privatize Hampden recreation center

Mary Pat ClarkeBelinda Conaway

Chanting "Save our recs," about 100 people gathered in Hampden on Wednesday to protest a plan by Baltimore City to privatize or close Roosevelt Recreation Center and other city rec centers.

Several City Council members joined supporters of the rec center, including children, parents and community leaders, as they rallied and waved signs at the intersection of Falls Road and West 36th Street, near Roosevelt Park.

"I think it's a community that wants to save its rec (center) and keep it the same," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said.

"I don't want all the kids in the neighborhood to be on the street and have no place to go," said 14-year-old Abby Sousa, of Hampden, who carried a sign that said, "Help our kids by saving our recs!"

Parents and the Roosevelt Park Recreation Council were stunned last month to learn that Roosevelt is on a list of recreation centers the city wants to privatize, by turning them over to community groups or nonprofit organizations to run. The rec council organized a protest, saying city Recreation and Parks Department officials reneged on their earlier promise not to contract out management of the centers.

"We are not afraid to fight City Hall," Lisa Meyers-Naill, president of the Roosevelt Park Recreation Council, wrote in an undated letter to Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos. "This center is not just a building to our community, it is part of our heritage and childhood."

The rec council also started a petition drive to keep the center city funded and operated. Petitions are available at Falkenhan's hardware store, Angelo's Pizza, The Wine Source and Sandy's.

The city has issued a "Request for Proposals for management and operation of recreation centers," as part of a cost-saving strategy that also would include expanding 10 recreation centers.

In the Request for Proposals, known as an RFP, the city is offering three-year contracts to "stabilize recreation facilities and move them toward safer, more encompassing community centers with expanded services available through partnerships based on financial reality."

The operators would take control of the facilities in "as is" condition, provide all personnel, expertise, equipment and supplies, and oversee daily operations, including promotions, concessions, and pricing and fee structures, the RFP states.

The winning bidders would also conduct everything from employee background checks to an annual audit for the city. And they would have to insure the city against damage.

Meyers-Naill said the city approached her recreation council in August 2010 and broached the idea of "partnering" with the city. She said she told the city's chief of recreation, William Tyler, that the council could not afford to run the rec center, and that Tyler assured her that "our center would not be one of the available centers for partnering, and that the city would be keeping our center."

Many in the community say the city went back on its word.

"I think it was an underhanded deal," said Vincent Ruggiero, 55, of Hampden. He asked organizers if there was a petition he could sign.

Joining the protest were 15 students in School of the Way, a martial arts and life skills school that is run out of Roosevelt and the South Baltimore Recreation Center in Federal Hill.

"If the rec center closes, we don't have a dojo, a place to practice," said John Starling, who founded the school at Roosevelt last year.

"This whole park is very important as a resource for the community," said Hampden resident Heather Hax, 35, who wore a T-shirt that said, "Save Our Rec Center."

She was critical of the city, saying, "Public resources are being stripped while they build up the harbor for tourists."

Also critical was City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who said the Roosevelt rec center is one of the most "viable" in her district.

"Recreation and Parks has been underfunded ever since I've been on the council," said Conaway, a 7-year councilwoman, who represents the Hampden-Remington area. Conaway was defeated in the Democratic primary in September by challenger Nick Mosby. But she said the city shouldn't try to save money by closing a popular center like Roosevelt.

"This is too active a rec center and too active a rec council for this to be closed," Conaway said.

Rec council member and former longtime Roosevelt employee Gloria Frazier noted that the city has spent a lot of money renovating the center, which was a bath house in the early 1900. She also said the city has made significant changes to Roosevelt Park, including building an amphitheater.

Frazier wishes the rec council could run the center, but, "We can't afford to take it."

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Mary Pat ClarkeBelinda Conaway
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