Teenage boys dart around a basketball court at North Baltimore's DeWees Recreation Center, calling to each other in the chilly fall air. Inside, younger kids in mud-stained football jerseys hover around a pool table and play video games. The floors are scuffed and the blinds hang askew, but for Govans residents, the small brick building is the center of community life.
That's why neighborhood leaders, with the aid of nearby Loyola University, drafted a plan to run DeWees after the city announced it wanted to hand over two dozen rec centers to third parties.
But after months of discussion, the plan appears to have fallen apart. Recreation and Parks officials say the community would have to pay hefty insurance and utility bills. Community leaders say they don't have the money. Without an agreement, the center could be shuttered by the end of the year.
"We just feel like we were just abandoned," said Irvin Johns, president of the Mid-Govans Community Association. "We've been jumping through these hoops for months and months, and now we're being told that the center is probably going to close."
The uncertainty at DeWees illustrates the challenges of the cash-strapped city's plans to overhaul its 55 recreation centers. Officials have decided to target limited recreation funds to expand and improve 30 centers. They aim to hand the rest to private parties — and, if takers are not found by Dec. 31, the city says, some centers could close.
"The status quo is not acceptable," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Right-sizing is better. We can't continue to have dilapidated, underused recreations centers and think we're providing services for people."
Rawlings-Blake noted that construction has begun on two centers, which will offer the expanded programming that a task force has recommended. While the mayor said she is "disappointed" that officials received bids from only seven groups interested in running 16 centers, she pledged to continue talks.
"We're going to go back. We're going to work with communities. We're going to work with not-for-profits that we know have an interest in partnering with us so we can create the partnerships that will allow us to have quality programming and quality recreation centers throughout the city," she said.
Alarmed by the threatened closure of some centers, the interfaith coalition Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development plans to protest Wednesday night in front of Recreation and Parks headquarters in Druid Hill Park.
In Govans, people say they have been bewildered by the city's response to their plans for DeWees. They submitted a proposal in June to team with Loyola University and other area nonprofits to run youth sports programs, offer classes for teenage mothers and GED applicants, and open a food pantry.
"We worked with residents through May and June and presented an adopt-a-center proposal. It was a very formal process," Erin O'Keefe, the director of Loyola's York Road Community Initiative. "We were really excited to see what would happen from there."
The proposal was the culmination of months of meetings, emails and phone calls between recreation officials and representatives from Govans and Loyola.
But in September, a month after the Govans and Loyola team say they had been told to expect a response, recreation officials informed them of a new process. If they wanted to run DeWees, they needed to submit a bid by early October showing they could purchase $5 million in insurance and pay for salaries, utilities and maintenance.
"You would have to have millions of dollars to run one of these rec centers," said Johns, the community association president. "It was like someone took a knife and stabbed us in the back."
Recreation director Bill Tyler confirmed that his agency had met with Govans officials and had requested an "application of interest" before the city later requested formal bids. He said he would not have more information for the neighborhood until officials have reviewed those bids. No one bid to run DeWees.
"The process is the process, and we can't usurp that process because people are disenchanted," Tyler said. "After the process takes care of itself, then we'll see where we are." City officials have said that after reaching a decision about the 16 centers for which bids were received, they may consider other proposals using less stringent standards.
Tyler said he understood that community members are concerned about DeWees, but said he would not be able to make a decision about the center's fate until next month at the earliest.
"They should be concerned about it, but that's something that people have to understand. Things have to change," he said. "The city is in a financial crisis."
For decades, city leaders have trimmed the recreation budget to close spending gaps. In the early 1980s, there were 130 centers in the city, more than twice as many as today. The city's population was about 785,000 back then, compared with 620,000 today.
DeWees, which was named after the City Councilman Walter J. DeWees, a lifelong Govans resident who died in 1955, has shifted hands several times as the city grappled with budget crises. Neighbors still refer to it as a PAL center, for the Police Athletic League program which managed it until a few years ago, when then-Mayor Sheila Dixon folded the PAL centers into the Recreation And Parks Department.
Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the area and helped broker the talks between community members, Loyola staffers and city officials, said the neighborhood is home to many children raised by single parents who work more than one job.
"If anybody really needs a good active rec center in their life, it would be the kids of a working single parent," he said.
"This mayor is the latest in a chain of mayors who have made cuts to recreation," he said. "We don't seem to accept the fact that giving kids something productive to do now is a much more cost effective way, and just plain more human way, to prevent crime."
On a recent evening, boys bounced around a basketball court, pausing for a moment to speak with a visitor before darting off again. An employee leaned out the center door, reminding one boy he had left his bike inside.
The center, in the 5500 block of Ivanhoe Road, a few blocks east of York Road, offers free meals, a quiet study room, a weight room and stacks of board and video games to play.
"We do our homework. We get to play the X-Box. And they feed us, basically stuff to keep us full," said Jalil Johns, Irvin Johns' 13-year-old son.
"And we build things," said Amos Anderson, also 13. "One time we built a lamp out of a light bulb."
The boys said that if the rec center closed, they would not be able to travel to another center — even if it were larger and offered more programs.
"Who would do that?" said 16-year-old John Anderson, Amos' brother, ticking off the buses he would have to take to get to another center. "If they close the rec center, people would be doing bad things."
Brian Phillips coaches the 125 young football players of the Northeast Youth Association who practice on the 15 acres of fields surrounding DeWees. He said he had played at the center when he was a small boy, when it had a pool, baseball diamonds and tennis courts.
"When I was coming up, it was where we went to play," he said. "If you cut these programs for the kids, they'll be learning things in the street."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.
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