New Catonsville center sparks differences over building's uses

Recreation department gets priority, not community programs

March 08, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The long-abandoned middle school on Bloomsbury Avenue might just be the most controversial building in Catonsville.

Six years ago, there was a long debate over whether the building should be recycled as a middle school. That was followed by an unsuccessful fight by preservationists to save the building's wings.

Now, the original 76-year-old structure in the 100 block of Bloomsbury Ave. is being renovated to become Baltimore County's largest community recreation center, Bloomsbury Community Center.

Community leaders worry that the county is scuttling their plans to move neighborhood-run programs into the building, including an after-school program for teen-agers and an emergency food pantry.

Officials of the county Department of Recreation and Parks say priority will be given to department activities. No permanent community programs will be allowed when the building opens in September.

"When did it stop being a community center and start being offices for parks and recreation?" asked Linda Lombardo, executive director of Lighthouse Inc., a nonprofit youth service and family counseling center. Lighthouse is located near the Bloomsbury building .

"I'm extremely concerned that whatever is going on in that building, the community has no input. There are no kitchen facilities. Who would build a community center without a kitchen?"

Two years ago, Lombardo served on a county task force that recommended the building become a community-run center, she said.

She and other task force members believed the center would house the program for teen-agers and the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministries, which was based at the Bloomsbury building in the 1980s.

"It was my impression ... that the food ministry would be back in there," Lombardo said. "There's no reason they should not be in that building. [Recreation and] parks ... doesn't want poor people hanging out there."

John F. Weber, director of recreation and parks, said no groups that need permanent space, such as the food ministry, will be allowed. "I can't designate space for them and tell somebody else you can't use it," he said.

Stephanie Murphy, the department's community supervisor for Catonsville, said she will help find the food ministry a new home. It operates out of a church on Johnnycake Road that is inconvenient to public transportation and social services. "We understand their dilemma," she said.

Alice March, executive director of the food ministry, said she still hopes to get space at Bloomsbury.

Anne Walker, coordinator of the Southwest Teen and Parent Consortium, said it was unclear whether her group's teen program would get access to the center.

"I want to know how the county is going to ensure this building becomes the center the community asked for and not a semi-empty government building," she said.

Murphy, who will manage the center, said it will give priority to recreation council activities. Decisions about which programs will use the center will be made jointly by the volunteer recreation council and the parks staff, she said.

She will review proposals through July. Inquiries have come from theater troupes, folk, jazz and tap dancing groups, music organizations, and basketball and soccer leagues, she said.

Weber, noting that the second and third floors will remain unfinished for now, said the center "has tremendous potential for growth."

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