A better approach to city recreation


A CONSULTANT has made a number of recommendations for streamlining the city's Bureau of Recreation. The idea is to determine how the bureau can cope with diminishing funds as it tries to run a system consumed almost entirely with operating 86 recreation centers.

The report recommends consolidating centers, using school buildings for after-school recreation and operating centers on Saturdays (which the city has begun to do).

Baltimore has more centers per capita than any city in America. (Dallas has 44 centers, Boston, 35). While some of them are noted for strong programs, many others are understaffed, poorly equipped and merely manage to keep their doors open.

Until 1940, the Playground Athletic League, precursor to the Bureau of Recreation and a nonprofit organization run by Baltimore citizens, received an annual grant from the city to run recreation programs. That year the subsidy was ended, and the government replaced the private providers with the newly created Department of Public Recreation. It was at that point that the city government began to assume the role of the major provider of recreation in Baltimore.

Over the next 40 years, the city-funded recreation department moved aggressively to expand indoor and outdoor recreation. By 1980 there were 120 centers. The 1980s, however, saw the loss of federal funds, a pinch in city revenue and a taxpayers' revolt. Gradually, the recreation system, dominated by centers, began to decline.

There is no reason to believe that the consultant's report and its recommendations will do more than simply hasten the phasing out of Baltimore's recreation center system, albeit in a more orderly fashion than is otherwise occurring.

The question that should be asked is this: If the city has $17 million to spend on recreation, could this money be better spent?

One idea is for the city to set up a nonprofit corporation to encourage groups of citizens to sponsor recreation programs. The corporation would operate under strict charter from the city and be subject to audit and inspection. It would administer direct grants to recreation providers such as sports leagues, churches, even neighborhood associations. The corporation also could assume responsibility for the recreation bureau's special operations, such as the Myers Pavilion, the Burns Arena and the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena. (It might not operate them directly; it could contract for their operation or form its own subsidiary.)

Each year the corporation, made up of Baltimore citizens, would petition the city for money for its operations. Each year it also would have to justify its expenditures and demonstrate the value of its efforts. It would have to explain to the City Council how it went about its business of making grants, or establishing programs, developing partnerships and generally leveraging the city dollar and maximizing return through quality programs.

The city already has one notable and highly successful example of this approach -- the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation. Within five years of assuming control of the city's five golf courses, the corporation has wiped the cost of the courses' operation from the city's books, has made substantial physical improvements to the courses and has increased play dramatically -- all at acceptable rates.

Undoubtedly there are many other opportunities for enhancement of recreation in Baltimore. Tennis courts and swimming pools are two that readily come to mind. A good operator could extend hours, institute or adjust fees, offer lessons, install night lighting and generally upgrade both systems. The corporation could also make grants to smaller entities, such as those interested in developing recreation programs for the impaired and elderly.

The list of recreation partnerships in which the corporation could participate is endless. To accomplish this, the government must eventually forsake the policy of being the direct provider of recreation services in Baltimore. Instead, it should see itself as a banker, matchmaker, evaluator, broker and stimulator of countless recreation programs, large and small, all across the city that represent the mosaic of our citizens' leisure pursuits.

Chris T. Delaporte is a former director of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.

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