City Closing Four Westside Rec Centers

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Baltimore City officials are closing four community recreation centers this week as part of what Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake calls her “restructuring plan” to overhaul the city’s rec system. The centers slated to close are located in different West Baltimore neighborhoods, but are close enough that children in those areas will be forced to travel substantially farther to participate in rec activities.

The mayor did not respond to a request by the AFRO to discuss the center closures. Her spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, answered some questions and provided documents, instead.

Records show the closures were recommended by a task force the mayor created two years ago to do top-down evaluations of the city’s 55 recreation centers. The closures planned for this week evolved from the findings of that task force. The centers will close on the last day of summer camp, two weeks before school starts for Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) students on Aug. 27. Via an email, parks department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Burrell Chambers identified the four centers to close as Central Rosemont, Crispus Attucks, Harlem Park and Parkview.

“I think it’s a bad decision to close the recreation centers. The kids are going be restless and they’re not going to have anything to do,” said Brandon Grey, 18, of West Baltimore, adding that he enjoyed the time he spent this summer at the Harlem Park Recreation Center. “We socialize, play table games, board games and we might go outside and play basketball.”

Rawlings-Blake’s task force looked at the physical state of the city’s recreation facilities, programming and how much the centers were utilized. In its “Recreation Center Task Force Implementation Plan,” the group recommended that $19 million be set aside for construction of three new centers and a complete renovation of another, officials said.

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Released last year, the task force report details brand new centers to be built in Morrell Park in the southwest part of the city and the Cherry Hill neighborhood. It also outlines substantial renovations to increase square footage and improve programming at the Virginia Baker center in Patterson Park. Rita Church, located in Clifton Park on the city’s east side, will be converted to a full rec center with craft, game and multipurpose rooms.

At the conclusion of the renovations, 10 rec facilities will become “model community centers” complete with computer rooms, workout and aerobics areas, meeting rooms and instructional programs on culture, art, nature and fitness. Hours of operation and staffing will be increased at 16 additional centers. Dozens more may be converted to so-called “charter center collaboration and partnership programs,” which would be operated by nonprofit and community-based organizations or “other” government agencies, the report said. It did not specify which agencies.

The plan also increased funding in the 2013 fiscal year budget for Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) by about $250,000. The report said the rec project should be completed by 2015 and that no employees would be laid off.

City Council President Jack Young has repeatedly disagreed with the way the upgrades are going to take place, according to his spokesman, Lester Davis. He said that city residents shouldn’t have to choose between saving their neighborhood rec centers and getting new and larger ‘super centers’ farther away.

“That's a false choice—we don't need one or the other,” said Davis. “What the city needs to do is invest in renovating, fixing up facilities that are there in addition to building these super centers.”

The four centers that are closing are not in neighbors that will be serviced by one of the two super centers expected to open within the next two years. Children would be required to travel some distance, crossing streets with high traffic volume like Pennsylvania Avenue, McCullough Street and Druid Hill Avenue.

Davis said the closure of the four centers is “going to be devastating,” and may result in young people getting involved in criminal behavior.

“Give kids enrichment on the front end and it will keep them from engaging in petty crimes and nuisance problems,” he said.

Davis said full renovations—not closures—should be a top priority. He said funding for recreation centers in the fiscal year budget planning “should be covered off the top” like other initiatives deemed important.

In a statement in May, Rawlings-Blake called the plan “bold and innovative.”

“Keeping the status quo with dilapidated buildings and depleted staffing and programming is not an option,” she said. “We need to move forward and make the tough choices and smart investments to create a high-quality recreation center network that will help retain and attract families and grow Baltimore.”