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Mayor renews pitch to sell city garages to fund rec centers

At a Tuesday news conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talked about her plan to renovate the city's recreation centers and pushed city council to reconsider her plan to fund the project by selling parking lots. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is again calling on the City Council to consider her year-old plan to sell four city-owned parking garages to raise money for improvements to recreation centers and pools.

Speaking Tuesday at the Rita Church Fitness and Wellness Center in Clifton Park, which opened in 2013, the mayor pitched a $136 million multiyear plan for park, pool and rec center improvements around the city.

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Selling four city-owned garages downtown would speed the pace of the renovations, Rawlings-Blake said. The city estimates a sale could raise $60 million.

"This plan could happen in six years or 26 years," Rawlings-Blake said. Money from the garages "would significantly help."

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City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has refused to allow the mayor's bill to move forward, saying he wants the recreation plan to include two big new centers, on the east and west sides. Young also questions whether it is a good idea to sell the garages and forgo their revenue, saying the money could gradually pay for recreation improvements.

Through a spokesman, Young accused the mayor of resorting to "political theatrics" when the parties should be negotiating to resolve their differences.

"These kind of games that we've seen with trying to negotiate through the media, they just don't serve anyone and they need to stop," spokesman Lester Davis said.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for the mayor, said all council members were invited to the news conference. The mayor met with most of them to discuss her recreation plans over the past week.

"We were clear with how we would finance the plan in an accelerated fashion. I don't think we were trying to stick it to him. The mayor has been asking the council to give her bill a hearing," he said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, who joined the mayor at her news conference, said it is important for the city to move forward in positive ways such as expanding recreational opportunities.

"We have to put aside our egos," he said. "This is not about us."

The garages, located on West Lombard Street, South Eutaw Street, St. Paul Place and Water Street, generate a combined $2.8 million in profits per year.

The city operates 40 recreation centers and does not intend to close any of them, administration officials said. Rawlings-Blake came under fire three years ago for closing four centers and turning over 10 to other operators.

She said Tuesday those "tough choices" put the city in a better financial position to improve other facilities, among them the Rita Church Center, an $8 million renovation of an old pavilion that now includes a fitness center, computer lab, kitchen, game room and multipurpose room. An expansion will open in 2016.

Rawlings-Blake touted recreation projects already complete or in the works, including the $4.5 million Morrell Park Community Center that opened last summer, the $11.5 million Cherry Hill Fitness and Wellness Center that will open in 2017 and the $12 million Cahill Fitness and Wellness Center that is scheduled to open in 2017.

The mayor's plans unveiled Tuesday include rehabilitating or building 11 fitness and wellness centers that would cater to people of all ages at a cost of $84 million.

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Another $20 million would pay for renovating five community centers and $20 million more would go to upgrading four outdoor sports centers. Upgrades to four existing outdoor pools and three "spray pads" would cost roughly $13 million.

Rawlings-Blake said her recreation plans will help achieve her goal of adding 10,000 new families to the city, both by attracting new families and giving current residents a reason to stay.

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