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City breaks ground on Clifton Park community center expansion

Cecilia Church Johnson, from right, and sister Ann Church Walker join Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and others in breaking ground for the second phase of construction for the Councilwoman Rita R. Church Community Center.
Cecilia Church Johnson, from right, and sister Ann Church Walker join Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and others in breaking ground for the second phase of construction for the Councilwoman Rita R. Church Community Center. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

At the groundbreaking Saturday of a community center expansion in Baltimore's Clifton Park neighborhood, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would advocate similar projects to retain longtime residents and attract new ones.

"When you're driving around other parts of the state and you see what Howard County and Baltimore County have in terms of recreation, and it always looks better than what we're able to provide, I don't blame people for thinking about moving someplace else," Rawlings-Blake said.

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"We have to keep more people here and give them more reasons to stay," she added.

She and other city officials launched the second phase of construction for the Councilwoman Rita R. Church Community Center, named for the late city councilwoman. The center opened last year as the first of four state-of-the-art recreation centers the mayor plans to create out of aging recreation space.

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Rawlings-Blake also pushed legislation she has proposed, calling for the sale of four city-owned parking garages to generate up to $60 million for the renovation and construction of additional community centers.

City officials said the $4.5 million Church Community Center expansion includes an additional 11,500-square-foot gymnasium and an outdoor terrace connecting to the Clifton Park Pool. This phase of the project is slated to be completed in early 2016.

The center already has a multi-purpose room, computer lab, fitness room and arts and crafts room.

"What we have to do in Baltimore is realize that we have a lot of myths about what our young people will and will not do," said Councilman Brandon Scott. "There are people who say, 'If you build a rec center in Clifton Park, they will only come there from Clifton Park.' But children will go wherever there is something that they want to do. We have to do a better job of providing opportunities for young people for what they want."

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Among those who dug into the ceremonial patch of earth with gold-plated shovels were members of Church's family who grew up near the facility and recalled its former state.

"It was much, much smaller," said Cecilia Johnson, Church's daughter. "We used to walk over here from Harford Road. We used to have picnics here."

Church served the city's 3rd District, and family and residents say she was often called the "mayor" of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello community.

"My mother was a rebel with a cause," said Ann Church Walker, Church's daughter. "People that couldn't fight for themselves, she had many battles for them. She knew they were fighting against the establishment and the egos and personalities of others and helped them get basic needs met."

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