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Four city rec centers could go to third-party groups

City officials are preparing to award contracts to three private groups to run recreation centers this week, following a string of delays, and have vowed to keep all of the city's centers open through June.

Under a deal before the city Board of Estimates, four centers — Brooklyn O'Malley in South Baltimore, Easterwood and Lillian Jones in West Baltimore, and Collington Square in East Baltimore — would be handed over to private groups.

A spokeswoman for the recreation and parks department said Monday that all city rec centers would maintain their current activities through the end of the fiscal year, a reversal of previous statements by city officials.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed expanding and improving programs at 30 of the city's 55 rec centers and handing others over to businesses or nonprofits to run, in an effort to ensure quality activities despite tight finances. She had previously said that as many as 10 centers could close at the end of this month because of budget shortfalls.

Last week, the spending board postponed the decision on the rec center deals. Officials then yanked a deal that would have handed two centers to Little Dimples II, a company run by Thomas Hardnett Jr.

A Rawlings-Blake spokesman referred questions on the centers to the recreation and parks department. Gwendolyn Chambers, a recreation and parks spokeswoman, said that officials in the purchasing department decided to pull the contract with Little Dimples II after further research.

"They went through a deeper vetting process, and there were some things they weren't comfortable with," said Chambers.

Chambers said she did not know what specifically caused the contract to be pulled. The director of the purchasing department did not return a request for comment.

Little Dimples II had proposed to charge an annual fee for adults and children to participate in evening and weekend programs.

The other groups poised to sign contracts with the city did not propose charging fees but would generate revenue through grants and donations.

Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project Inc., a nonprofit, would offer programs for former criminal offenders, mentally ill patients and before- and after-school care for children at Lillian Jones and Collington Square, both of which are attached to schools. The group's director has said that the children and the ex-offenders and mentally ill patients would use the centers at different times.

The Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore would offer programs at Brooklyn O'Malley to boost young people's self-esteem and help them avoid drugs, gangs and risky sexual behavior. The Omega Baltimore Foundation would run the Easterwood Center, which is currently closed.

The city would award each group $50,000 in seed money to help with the first year's costs, according to the spending board's agenda. The award had been offered to the other groups but is a new development for The Boys and Girls Club — it did not appear on the agenda printed last week.

News of the contracts came as protesters affiliated with Occupy Baltimore prepared to demand that the rec centers stay in city control.

Jessica Lewis, a member of the Occupy Baltimore media team, said the activists want to make sure rec centers stay open and public. She said the group is planning a "Save the Rec Centers" strategy meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at 2640 St. Paul St., with plans of coordinating various activist groups.

"We're trying to get together anyone with an interest in keeping rec centers open and in public hands," she said, "so they won't work individually on this, and we can have a serious intervention."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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