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City gets few bids to run rec centers

Programs could close, mayoral aide says

By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

9:55 PM EDT, October 12, 2011

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Baltimore received bids Wednesday to run just seven of the 31 recreation centers that officials wanted to hand over to third parties by the end of the year — raising the prospect that some will be forced to close.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said late Wednesday that if more groups do not step forward to pick up the cost of running the centers, the city will have no choice but to shutter some.

"The current structure, with dilapidated buildings, understaffed centers, and a lack of resources and programming is not adequate and certainly doesn't make sense in this economic climate," said spokesman Ryan O'Doherty.

Rawlings-Blake "was very clear from the beginning that rec centers could possibly close," he said.

Community leaders said they feared losing the centers, which they described as havens for youngsters in embattled neighborhoods. The city currently has 55 centers, with six more that are currently closed or run by others. The city had about 130 centers in the early 1980s.

Anthony Cole, a Southwest Baltimore resident whose Stallions youth football league practices at the Hilton Recreation Center, said youngsters would be devastated if the center were to close. "We're talking about a neighborhood that is thirsting for activities," said Cole, vice president of the Carroll Improvement Association.

Under the city's current budget, the 55 recreation centers are fully funded through Dec. 31. The budget assumes that many of the centers would be taken over by private groups at that time.

Under a plan released in August, the city intends to construct or significantly enlarge four rec centers, expand 10 others and boost staffing at 16 more.

Bids for the centers to be transferred to other groups were initially due Oct. 5, but the city later extended the deadline until Wednesday.

Bill Tyler, the city's director of recreation, said the Recreation and Parks Department plans to make recommendations to the mayor by the end of the month about whether to accept the seven bids. The department also plans to conduct a second search and issue a less-stringent request for proposals to find groups interested in running programs at the centers, he said.

Some community groups said Wednesday they initially had planned to apply to run centers but concluded they did not have enough money to do that without city help and did not have enough time to prepare a plan.

West Baltimore youth advocate Greg Mobley, who is academic coordinator for the nonprofit organization Empower U, said the group had hoped to bid to run the Parkview Recreation Center in Penn North. The group currently runs after-school programs at an elementary school attached to the center.

But Empower U did not respond to the city's request for proposals because the nonprofit's leadership found the application process unduly burdensome, Mobley said.

"The insurance is a big issue, as well as having to develop a budget without knowing what the existing utility bills are," he said.

The request for proposals, which the city posted in August, advised applicants that they would be required to secure more than $5 million in insurance, pay for staffing, maintenance and utilities, and be prepared to begin operating the centers on Nov. 14.

Mobley said the rec center was a community hub when he was growing up in Penn North, and suggested that youths need the same support today. "Children had a place to be safe and play and do their homework," he said. "It gave you the opportunity to be involved in organized, structured and positive activities."

City officials have not said which rec centers have been targeted for possible closure. As of Jan. 1, the city is budgeted to maintain 30 rec centers.

The remaining 25 rec centers — and the six others that are currently run by third parties or are closed — are eligible to be run by other groups. Tyler said the city school system could run as many as 12 of these.

The Recreation and Parks budget has steadily decreased in recent years, while spending for other agencies, such as police, has increased. The department has a $31 million budget this year; 20 years ago, the department was allocated $7 million more.

A task force convened by Rawlings-Blake last year endorsed a plan to improve the quality of city-owned rec centers and hand others off to third parties.

Ralph Moore Jr., a task force member and the director of East Baltimore's St. Frances Community Center, said city officials had said there were many groups interested in taking over the centers. He said that given the threat of closures, he now regrets supporting the concept of putting the centers in private hands.

"We were led to believe there were as many as 55 expressions of interest," he said. "This is still the city's responsibilty. We have have an obligation to our youth and the people who use these facilities."

In August, during the mayoral primary campaign, Rawlings-Blake pledged to maintain 55 rec centers at a forum hosted by the interfaith coalition BUILD.

When asked, "Will you create 55 high-quality community centers so that all neighborhoods have access to recreation?" Rawlings-Blake answered "Yes."

O'Doherty said that the mayor's response indicated that "she supports the goal of improving recreation opportunities for kids," and that her more nuanced written answer laid out her plan for the city to run only about 30 centers itself.

"We have to get out of this mentality that providing a too-small rec center that is understaffed and in poor condition … is helping kids," he said. "It's not."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said that he did not agree with the task force's recommendations.

"I really don't support the new model," he said. "I believe every neighborhood in the city should have a center in close proximity."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke attended a protest in Hampden this week led by people worried that the Roosevelt Recreation Center would be closed.

The center's advisory council is equipped to run programs at the center and contribute some funds, but it does not have the money required by the request for proposals, she said.

"I think we had somewhat of a disconnect. Neighborhood organizations and nonprofits thought that they were working toward a partnership to assume some of the operations and financial burden," she said. "But the [request for proposals] is a horse of another color. It requires you to be very well-heeled."

Kenneth Darden, president and CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore, said his group bid to operate South Baltimore's Brooklyn-O'Malley Recreation Center. The organization currently runs tutoring, sports and crafts programs in five locations, he said.

"We're used to responding to large [proposal requests], so it wasn't that daunting," he said. The group had funding from the national office that would allow them to begin running the center in November, Darden said.

The other bids came from Park Heights Renaissance Inc., John Darrell Brantley Financial Services, Omega Baltimore Foundation, Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project, Little Dimples II Corp. and Granny's Place.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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