Northeast Baltimore teenager Sanchel Brown developed a passion for all forms of dance, from African to tap, at a local recreation center that set her upon her current path to college. But she worries that kids in her neighborhood may be denied the same opportunity because of budget cuts at City Hall.
"They complain about the children always making trouble, but we don't have anything to do that's affordable," said Brown, a rising senior at Baltimore City College who is looking to apply to colleges around the state and major in dance. "We need something to recreate our minds."
Brown was among several hundred children, parents, teachers and clergy who made the symbolic trip Sunday to the Inner Harbor, where a recent rash of assaults and harassment by roving groups of teens near the tourist hot spot has put city officials on alert and dismayed residents. Protesters called on Mayor Sheila Dixon to restore cuts to youth programs.
Dixon proposed cuts to recreation centers, community pools and Police Athletic League centers as part of her $2.3 billion budget, from which she had to trim $65 million to cover a shortfall. The City Council, in a rare defiance of mayoral budget-setting authority, responded by cutting $1.1 million from Dixon's priorities and asking the mayor to use the money to restore the funding for the youth programs.
Dixon, in a phone interview, urged community leaders who organized the rally with BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, to support her efforts to reorganize the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks to draw more young people into the programs.
She noted just a few thousand of roughly 100,000 residents younger than 21 take part in Recreation and Parks programs.
"I'm glad that folks are out there voicing their opinions," Dixon said. "What I need them now to do is to help get kids into those centers."
The mayor's budget eliminated duplicative recreational opportunities while also streamlining programs by converting underfunded PAL centers into recreation centers, a move that's intended to improve services and boost participation, according her office. The recreation department is discontinuing operations at seven facilities, some of which Dixon's office said are underused or in poor condition.
BUILD leaders called on City Council to approve Councilman Robert W. Curran's proposal to replace the amusement tax on video poker machines with annual license fees and raise an additional $2 million to $4 million a year. Dixon supports the proposal and said Sunday that she would be open to using some of the license revenue for the recreation department.
Frances "Toni" Draper, a BUILD leader, warned that failure to restore funding is a "prescription for an explosive and violent summer." She addressed the crowd on the grassy park between the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore visitor center.
"If we can't play uptown, then we'll come downtown," Draper said.