Hampden recreation center plan is derailed

February 24, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

The proposal was supposed to enrich the programming at the Roosevelt Recreation Center in Hampden, city officials and social service providers said.

College students were to be brought in as tutors at the center's already popular after-school program. Another bonus: Instructors from Baltimore City Community College would be at the disposal of those studying to take the General Educational Development test.

But some particularly vocal Hampden residents saw only drawbacks, decrying the plan as a takeover of the facility - an illustration of the challenge facing city recreation officials who want to supplement their tight budgets with nonprofit assistance.

The children would have nowhere to practice their karate moves, the critics said. They feared the proposed partnership between the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and the privately operated Hampden Family Center would push out Roosevelt's existing programming, which many in the community had grown to rely on.

"We're being invaded," said Lisa Meyers, whose 9-year-old daughter attends the after-school program at the Roosevelt Recreation Center on Hampden's main drag, 36th Street. "We already use all the space. If [the family center] comes in and ... tries to run all [its] programs in our space, we're going to lose something."

About an hour before a community meeting last month that drew nearly 100 residents, the Hampden Family Center rescinded the proposal via e-mail. The crowd cheered.

"We've been in Hampden for 12 years now," said Steve Vassor, the family center's director. "Our work really does speak for itself. The opportunity was presented, and we were certainly interested. The main reason we pulled out was because we didn't want to fight the community."

Since the 2002 fiscal year, the budget for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks has increased from $3.8 million to $5.2 million in 2007 to fund operating costs at the city's 46 recreation centers. But as officials have worked to broaden the range of programs to offer such activities as computer workshops, they have increasingly teamed up with community social service organizations to go beyond the activities typically found at recreation centers.

Recreational activities have been replaced in some centers with workshops on resume writing and SAT study sessions.

"We're asked to expand our programs with limited resources," said Portia Harris, the associate director of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. "The only way to expand what we do, given fixed resources, is to bring more people to the table. So it really makes good operational sense.

"The need is great," Harris said. "We have to continuously re-create ourselves to serve our communities. How do you do that? You get other people to help you accomplish your mission."

In Hampden, a neighborhood with historically working-class roots, the need for many of the services offered by the Hampden Family Center is acute. Despite the neighborhood's reputation as less crime-ridden than others in the city - and its recent emergence as a destination for young professionals eager to benefit from its relatively cheap housing - Hampden does face challenges.

According to 2003 statistics from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, Hampden and surrounding neighborhoods had an 8.27 percent teen pregnancy rate. The juvenile arrest rate was 12.02 percent. And the absentee rate among 10th-graders in the neighborhood was 49.41 percent.

The Hampden Family Center, which is up the block from Roosevelt, was founded by several community groups in 1995 and has an annual budget of about $300,000. Some of its programs are replicated at Roosevelt, such as a summer camp and an after-school program.

Many at Roosevelt Recreation Center, which has been a neighborhood mainstay since 1911 and concluded a $1.3 million renovation in September, mobilized after learning of the plan.

The 11-page memorandum of understanding between Recreation and Parks and the Hampden Family Center proposed adding or enhancing 11 programs at Roosevelt, but it was never made final, Harris said. She said the agreement would have had to be approved by both parties and vetted by city lawyers.

Nevertheless, a copy of the memorandum ended up on the Web site of the Hampden Community Council.

The community outcry multiplied, and the rumors flew: Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that were previously at the family center's building were rumored to be moving to Roosevelt. And surely, residents said, the family center was low on money and looking for funding from the city.

None of it was true, Vassor said.

Meanwhile, Vassor said there are no hard feelings, and work at the Hampden Family Center continues. The nonprofit operation recently received an $80,000 grant from the Family League of Baltimore to fund a job-training program for at-risk youth in Hampden. About 25 teens will benefit from it, he said, learning skills such as behavior management and child and youth development during the six-month program. By summer, they'll be placed in jobs.

And he hasn't ruled out future partnerships with Roosevelt.

"What's more important to discuss is the work that needs to be done in the community," Vassor said. "Let's hold hands. Let's work together. As far as I'm concerned, what happened in the past, happened in the past."


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