The needs at Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center in West Baltimore are readily apparent. A gaping hole in the ceiling looms over an indoor gymnasium, exposing the aging guts of the building’s heating and air conditioning system.
The fields outside disappear into deep muddy pockets, waiting to swallow the ankles of young athletes. During a tennis tournament last summer, organizers used caution tape in place of a net on one cout because there weren’t enough nets available.
Help finally may be on the way, however, to Marshall and a dozen other aging recreation centers like it across the city. On Monday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced plans to invest $41 million investment of federal American Rescue Plan funds in the city’s recreation and parks department.
That money, part of $641 million awarded to the city as part of a federal coronavirus relief effort, is slated to upgrade recreation centers, pools, playgrounds and athletic courts in Baltimore that have long been pushed down the priority list in favor of the city’s other nagging infrastructure needs.
“We know what these facilities mean to our young people, to our families, to our seniors, to our communities,” Scott said last week during a city-organized tour of several sites set to be upgraded with the money.
Unlike Baltimore’s schools, which Scott said have seen significant improvements and capital investments, Baltimore’s recreation centers have been left behind, he said.
“It’s about showing the next generation that we actually want to invest in rec centers and pools,” Scott said.
Of the $41 million allocated Monday, about half will be dedicated to recreation centers. Another $10 million is slated for pools — Towanda, Coldstream, Central Rosemont, Great Model, McAbee and O’Donnell Heights. About $5 million will pay for improvements to about 20 city playgrounds, and another $2.2 million will be dedicated to improving 15 athletic courts. Top priority courts include Carroll Park, Queensbury and Johnston Square.
The condition of Baltimore’s recreation buildings and pools was analyzed as part of the city’s five-year plan for recreation known as Rec 2025. Officials relied on that data to prioritize and choose sites for the American Rescue Plan funds, said Jacia Smith, chief of staff for the city’s recreation and parks department.
Decisions were based on two categories: sites in serious disrepair that needed quick attention and places that have been repeatedly ignored for years, she said.
Among the top-ranked projects under the spending plan is the pool at Towanda Recreation Center in Park Heights, Scott’s preferred recreation center as a child. Standing in front of the dirt-filled cement expanse emblazoned with “no trespassing poopyhead” in spray paint, Scott said the pool’s poor condition dates back to his use of the center in the early 1990s.
“I never, never, never used the pool,” he said.
A swarm of children surrounded Scott as Creative City Public Charter School next door to Towanda Recreation Center released its students. Scott attended school in the same building when it was known as Malcolm X Elementary School.
“That’s the pool that’s never open,” one child remarked.
“We’re going to fix it,” Scott said. “Are you going to come and swim in it when it’s open?”
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“Let’s go!” another cried, charging for the locked gates.
The funding for Towanda’s pool will be the second major infusion in capital into the Park Heights-based recreation facility in recent years. The recreation center itself reopened in October following a full renovation. It had been closed for nearly four years because of arson.
The recreation and parks funding announced Monday means Baltimore now has allocated about 75% of the American Rescue Plan funds awarded to the city by the federal government. Money is still due to be awarded to area nonprofits.
Thus far, spending has included:
- $130 million to balance upcoming city budgets;
- $80 million for the city’s health department for COVID-19 testing and prevention efforts;
- $75 million to reform city homelessness services, including the purchase of two hotels to shelter people;
- $50 million for violence reduction efforts;
- $55 million to fund workforce development and economic recovery programs;
- $35 million to the Mayor’s Office of Broadband and Digital Equity to expand public internet access inside and outside city recreation centers, among other projects;
- $10 million to run the Office of Recovery Programs, responsible for distributing American Rescue Plan funding.
Scott said the allocation for recreation and parks is among the most personally meaningful of the funds invested so far. Reflecting on his classmates who are no longer alive, Scott wondered aloud what more investment in city recreation could have done to alter the course of their lives.
“Thinking about if things were invested in, the way we’re doing this, how it could have changed some of their lives and how it will change some of these young people’s lives,” he said, growing visibly emotional. “Not having to do what we did.”
“For me this is really my gift to the city, to the future of the city, to show them how much I love them,” Scott said. “It means a lot to me, but I know it’s going to mean a lot much more to them. I just hope they remember the love I have for them.”