Marbella: If rec centers close, kids could lose their 'third places'

This probably would have happened in just about any neighborhood, but I happened to be on the west side, trying to find the Central Rosemont Recreation Center after mistakenly walking into a nearby school.

I asked some children walking by if they knew where it was, and their eyes lit up. "Want me to help you get in?" one asked, practically taking me by the hand to the center's door and rising on his toes to ring the doorbell.

A kid opened the door, and a silent transaction took place: Kid One tipped his head toward me, indicating to Kid Two to let me in.

I had to laugh; it was like getting past the velvet rope of a nightclub. Their proprietary feeling toward the rec center was as unmistakable as it was adorable.

That's when it occurred to me: For kids, the rec center is their "third place," their "great good place."

When sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined those perfect descriptions, he was largely talking about adult hangouts — those places that are neither home nor work, with all the prescribed roles and duties they entail, but rather the bars, coffeehouses and other spots that toss you into the social mix of a community.

Of course kids need third places, too, somewhere that is neither home nor school, but the public spaces like parks, playgrounds and, yes, rec centers that give them a sense of membership in a larger society.

But Baltimore's rec centers have been under the gun for years now, perennially threatened with cutbacks and even closure because of city budget shortfalls. This week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's rec center plan — to save them, she wants to unload the operation of some to a third party — got off to a sputtering start: Only seven groups applied to run 16 of the city's 55 centers.

Even if all the bids are accepted — and 10 of them have already been sent to the city law department for review because they appeared not to meet certain legal requirements — they fall far short of Rawlings-Blake's hope to take as many as 31 centers off the city's shoulders.

Understandably, the city is in a fiscal bind. Its population losses over the years have left it with a shrinking tax base — and the ravages of the recession and continuing unemployment have only worsened the woe.

You could make a case that with fewer people than in previous years, some rec centers could close and kids in those neighborhoods could just go to other facilities. In reality, though, many city kids don't have minivan-driving parents to take them out of their neighborhoods for the after-school programs and other activities that their rec centers offer.

Getting enough companies, nonprofits or community groups to take over that many centers always seemed wildly pie-in-the-sky to me. For one thing, the timeline was rushed — the mayor's task force that looked at how to overhaul the outdated rec center system only issued its implementation report in August. The first meeting for those interested in bidding was in September, with applications due in October.

And the application is crazy complicated, albeit necessarily so, given that the city is going to entrust kids to some other entity. Frankly, I'm surprised the city got the bids that it did, given how much was required: The bidder had to submit in-depth fiscal and tax information, secure insurance coverage, detail what programs it would offer at the rec center and who would provide them.

I'm not saying there aren't groups out there that could fulfill all this, and in fact, I wonder whether the city identified and approached likely bidders. Still, 31 is a lot of rec centers, especially since many are aging facilities. The term "as is" gets repeated a lot in the request for bids.

It's unknown which, if any, of the rec centers might ultimately be closed. The task force did recommend building more facilities as well. If the two I scoped out, briefly, this week are any indication, they would be sorely missed. While the rec centers seemed fairly bare-bones, they still provide what seemed like warm, welcoming places for kids to go after school for help with homework, a meal, some fun and games and, yes, a sense of community.

And a city that can't provide that to its youngest citizens needs to look itself in the mirror and ask why.

"This is the best rec center in the city," Tisha Norris told me, pointing to Central Rosemont. At 18, she's a little old for its offerings but remembers fun times roller-skating there on Friday nights and getting taken on trips to the ESPN Zone and the Ravens stadium. "There's nothing here. This is it."

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