Privatizing Recreation


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is unhappy that the non-profit Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation operates independently of City Hall -- and that its charter makes no provision for sharing excess revenues with the city.

At the same time, the Schmoke administration is negotiating a five-year lease with the Baltimore Blast under which the Blast will operate the city's gleaming new Clarence "Du" Burns indoor soccer arena just off Boston Street.

This lease was not put out to bid and, as yet, there has been precious little public discussion about what will be done with any profits the building generates.

Profits there surely will be. The arena was designed with enough flexibility to be used virtually around the clock:

* The soccer arena itself can be transformed into an area for small events such as flower shows or set up for concerts or other public events.

* There is a spacious ballet studio for dance or aerobics classes.

* There is an attractive patio, which increases the building's usefulness for receptions or other private events.

In short, there is every indication that any reasonably competent organization could operate this building and reap handsome revenues. So why hand it over to a private corporation before exploring other possibilities among non-profit, community-based groups?

Privatization is a growing trend in recreation programs around the country, and in a time of shrinking city resources it's a move that makes a great deal of sense. But any arrangement that privatizes public facilities should be done in the best spirit of public recreation programs: providing high-quality recreational opportunities to citizens at a reasonable cost. Inevitably, that goal requires that the primary claim on excess revenues should be the programs themselves -- not profit for a private corporation.

The golf courses are a good example. A mild winter produced record revenues for the city's golf courses last year -- leaving the golf corporation with $800,000 to put back into its operation. Given the budget restrictions facing the city -- and the fact that Baltimore simply can no longer afford to keep all its 80 or so community recreation centers open -- it's not surprising for the mayor to covet those funds.

Even so, it's important to remember that in 1985, when the Board of Estimates handed the golf corporation a free 15-year lease for the courses, the deal was seen as a good financial move for the city. No longer would the mayor have to fund the courses' operating budgets -- or worry about making up the half-million dollars they were losing each year.

Today, Baltimore golfers are a fortunate bunch. They enjoy quality courses at fees unheard of in most cities. And because municipal courses offer training and tournaments to groups of city youngsters and others who would not have access to private clubs, golf is a sport available to far more people in Baltimore than in most other cities.

Another local success story is the Mt. Pleasant Ice Arena, operated by Baltimore Ice Boards Inc. Unlike Ed Hale's Blast, this non-profit organization has not been given a long-term lease -- which, according to George B. Stump, who heads the group, has cost it some good employees.

However, when the current one-year lease expires in September, the Board of Estimates does intend to award a five-year lease for the arena. Mr. Stump's group, which was instrumental in getting the rink built and which deserves credit for shaping it into a model ice skating center, will be bidding for the new lease. But, again unlike the Blast, Mr. Stump will face competition for the lease, including some for-profit corporations.

There's nothing wrong with competition. But it does raise a question: If competition is good for the ice arena, why not for the Burns facility as well?

Neither is there anything inherently wrong with granting a lease to a for-profit corporation -- provided the agreements spell out in detail the provisions that would protect the public's interest in these facilities, and provided the corporation understands and supports the goals of public recreation. Those goals don't necessarily preclude making a profit, as long as the city's buildings and programs do not suffer in order to pump up the bottom line.

If there's money to be made in recreation -- and the golf courses are proof of that -- why not do everything possible to make sure that money goes back into recreation programs? Despite the mayor's dissatisfaction with the golf course arrangement, he has offered little assurance that any agreement the Blast might sign would benefit the public as much as it would the Blast's bottom line.

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