Baltimore awards four rec centers to private groups

Baltimore officials awarded the rights to run four city recreation centers to three nonprofit groups Wednesday despite fiery opposition from City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. The vote by the city's spending board marked the first step in an administration plan to focus public spending on other centers.

"In the end, it's the right thing to do for the children of Baltimore," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has proposed ceding control of as many as 25 rec centers to private groups. The mayor wants to target city resources to expand and enhance programming at the 30 other centers, which would still be run by the recreation and parks department.

The five-member Board of Estimates approved the deal despite sharp condemnation from Young, the panel's chair.

"It's the city's responsibility to maintain its buildings," said Young. "To just give the rec centers away with no control is just absurd."

Young, who rarely opposes the mayor publicly, said the plan is a "failure on the part of the City of Baltimore to do its charter responsibilities."

Rawlings-Blake stressed that the effort will allow city officials to expand, renovate and increase staffing at other centers.

"Keeping the status quo — dilapidated buildings and depleted staffing — is not an option," she said. "We need to make the city more attractive for families to stay here and move here."

The dispute between the mayor and council president continued after the meeting, as Young loudly complained to Rawlings-Blake that he had been left out of the decision-making.

"You're not doing the right thing," he said. "I'm telling you, you're not doing the right thing."

The other members of the Board of Estimates, Rawlings-Blake, Comptroller Joan Pratt, City Solicitor George Nilson and Public Works director Col. Alfred Foxx, voted in favor of the agreement.

The Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore was awarded the rights to run South Baltimore's Brooklyn O'Malley Center. The group, which currently runs programs in O'Donnell Heights and the youth jail, has proposed to offer programs to boost young people's self-esteem and encourage them to eschew drugs, alcohol and risky sexual behavior.

A group called Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project Inc. was granted West Baltimore's Lillian Jones center and East Baltimore's Collington Square center. In addition to programming for children, the nonprofit plans to offer programs for ex-criminal offenders and mentally ill patients at the centers, which are attached to schools. The group's director said adults and children would participate at different times.

The Omega Foundation of Baltimore, a charitable arm of a national fraternity, was awarded the Easterwood center in West Baltimore, which has been closed for more than two years.

John Carrington, vice president of ARCO, a community group that includes neighborhoods surrounding Easterwood, said he had met with the Omegas and was impressed with their plans.

"We were pleased with the questions they answered for us," he said.

Bill Tyler, the city's recreation chief, said his department now has 60 days to finalize contracts with the groups.

The vote comes as the city continues to solicit proposals from groups to run other centers. Officials issued a second request this month. Those proposals are due in late January.

Recreation and parks director Gregory Bayor said the department now plans to allow all 55 rec centers to remain open through the end of the fiscal year in June. The administration had previously warned that as many as 10 centers could close at the end of this month due to lack of money.

"We're so minimally staffed now, we'll continue with that minimal staffing," Bayor said.

Bayor said that he expected finance officials to further slash the department's funding in the budget for the coming fiscal year, which will be unveiled in March. City officials anticipate a $52 million shortfall, and the administration has asked all agency heads to prepare for cuts.

Rawlings-Blake says that her privatization plan, which was drafted with the aid of a task force of community leaders, will allow the city to improve rec centers despite tight finances.

"We're not going to pretend that three rec centers in poor condition with too few staff is better than two well-run centers," she said. "That's wrong."

But some community leaders have disputed her view. They say that having many centers — even if they are in poor condition — scattered across the city allows children to participate in games and after-school activities close to home. If the centers were farther apart, some children would not be able to reach them, they say.

Young, who describes himself as "a product of the Baltimore City public recreation department," said he feared that the third-party groups would be unable to afford to improve the rundown buildings.

"What happens when the nonprofits run out of cash and can't run the facilities?" Young asked.

Tyler, the recreation chief, said the city would collaborate with the groups to fix the centers.

"Those buildings will look much better," Tyler said. He added that the improved centers would appeal to a wider swath of the population.

"We're not just talking about disenfranchised youth," he said. "We want all youth to want to go to a rec center."