City parks to get funds

Public Works Board to OK $4.3 million earmarked last year

`It's been a lifesaver'

Current state budget includes additional $4.8 million

April 17, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Amid Baltimore's budget cuts and expected layoffs comes this dose of good news: The state is funneling millions of dollars into the city's frumpy park system.

Dozens of parks projects - from upgraded bath houses to new playgrounds to new ballfields - are going forward with $4.34 million in state funds. The state Board of Public Works is set to give final approval tomorrow for that spending, which was earmarked in last year's budget.

An additional $4.8 million for city parks was included in the recently adopted state budget and will help fund a broad wish list of projects in the next fiscal year.

Together, the two years of more than $4 million in funding will pay for the broadest face lift the city's 5,700 acres of parkland have received for at least 20 years.

The city has come to rely heavily on the state funds, which have increased in the past five years. A fourth of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation budget comes from the state.

"It's been a lifesaver," said Marvin F. Billups Jr., the city's parks director, who oversees 19 large parks, such as Druid Hill and Patterson parks, and hundreds of smaller parks, picnic sites, athletic fields and playgrounds.

Billups said the system that he took over last year, when he was appointed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, was in "real bad shape." The state-funded projects "are the kinds of things that will bring back the quality of life and help stabilize some of those communities," Billups said.

The state funding arrives as the city's parks department faces budget cuts of up to 24 percent and the loss of 70 to 80 positions from its staff of 326. However, O'Malley decided last week to spare the department some of the cuts it had feared, such as cutting some of the neighborhood recreation centers.

Still, the department's budget is about half what it was in the 1980s. And a survey last year ranked Baltimore's park system 20th among the top 25 U.S. cities in per capita spending. The $47 per resident Baltimore spends on parks ranks well below the national average of $64, according to the survey by the Trust for Public Land.

State funding for parks projects this year and next year will pay for upgrades to long-neglected and potentially dangerous playgrounds, for resurfacing tennis and basketball courts, for upgrading ball fields and for renovating historic buildings, water fountains and park entrances. The money comes from Program Open Space, which is mostly funded by real estate transfer taxes.

"Program Open Space will help restore green spaces that are so vital to our city," said Peggy Stansbury, a member of the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks commissioners board. "There is a dire need."

Other projects funded by the state include: Resurfacing tennis and basketball courts at Carroll Park and turning three baseball fields into four all-purpose athletic fields with new bleachers.

Renovating the Baltimore Conservatory at Druid Hill Park and making overdue repairs to that park's century-old storm water system.

At Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, allocating $500,000 for management of the Gwynns Falls Greenway, a new 4-mile trail that will eventually extend 14 miles to the Inner Harbor; playgrounds will also be renovated.

Replacing the piping and pump at Patterson Park's fountain, and renovating light fixtures, decorative ironwork and stone pediments at two of its historic entrances.

Nancy Supik, president of Friends of Patterson Park, said the Open Space money will help stalled park improvements get started. The community has been waiting for some improvements - such as upgrades to the boat lake and pagoda - since the Patterson Park master plan was developed in 1998.

"This money is going to allow them to actually happen," Supik said. "We're looking for construction to start this summer, and that's exciting. It's been a very long time."

Sun staff writers Allison Klein and Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

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