City seeks nonprofits, groups to run rec centers

20 of 55 could be operated by schools, organizations

February 23, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

For lease: Baltimore rec center, some wear and tear. Community groups, nonprofits and churches welcome to apply. Price negotiable.

The director of the city's Recreation and Parks Department has been making an unusual pitch in recent weeks. He's seeking private groups — and public schools — to run more than a third of the cash-strapped city's 55 neighborhood recreation centers.

Gregory Bayor has come up with a plan that he hopes will boost the quality of the centers while insulating them from the vagaries of city finances.

"Closing them is not going to work," Bayor said. "I always want to be able to say that under my leadership the city has at least 55 rec centers. I think we're actually going to be able to open some that are closed now."

The director said he is negotiating with city school officials, community groups and businesses to run as many as 20 of Baltimore's 55 rec centers. The groups would plan programs for children, families and seniors, hire staff and handle day-to-day maintenance. And private groups would have considerably more latitude than city officials to solicit donations.

As Bayor envisions it, city officials would continue to oversee staff and programs at the centers, and handle major repairs and improvements. In some cases, groups could be paid $50,000 or more if they run "charter centers" modeled on the city's charter schools. He said the financial details are still being worked out.

The rec centers would be handed over to outside groups as soon as next fall, Bayor said.

At the Roosevelt rec center in Hampden, parents say they would be open to a nonprofit group — or perhaps their rec council — running the center. They say they have grown weary of budget cuts threatening beloved programs.

"It seems the first thing they threaten to cut is the one thing they have for the children," said Jessica Pflieger, 31, as she and her husband waited for their daughter to finish soccer practice. "What are you going to do when they're always threatening to close the center?"

Michael Miller, 30, whose daughter was at the soccer practice, said the center offered many more sports and programs when he was growing up.

"This was a much better place before," he said. "As of late, it seems the funding has been severely cut."

For years, the Recreation and Parks Department has been threatened by budget cuts. In the city's fiscal crisis last year, residents braced for the closing of more than half the rec centers. Dozens of rec center employees received pink slips. The City Council averted those cuts and prevented the layoffs by passing a package of taxes proposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Still, the city has closed dozens of rec centers over the past couple of decades. The current 55 centers is down from 101 in the mid-1980s, according to Chris Delaporte, who led the department then.

The city's former Police Athletic League centers have changed hands several times in the past decade. They were run by a nonprofit until the early part of the last decade, when the Police Department took over. The police handed them over to the city a couple of years ago.

Many of the centers have not been upgraded in years and most have only two staff members — one of whom works part time. The Recreation and Parks Department's budget was $31 million last year; 20 years earlier, it was $38 million.

"Quite frankly, the word to describe [some of the centers], is 'sad,'" Bayor said. He plans to increase staffing to four or five full-time employees at all rec centers and as many as six at the larger community centers.

Recreation and Parks advocates, including members of a task force that drew up recommendations for the centers, say they support the idea of turning some over to nonprofit and community groups.

"People would have the opportunity to do lots of interesting and innovative things," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center in East Baltimore and a task force member. "We were interested in seeing that there be quality programming and services and to have programs for as many kids as we possibly can."

Bishop Douglas Miles, who heads the interfaith group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and served on the task force, applauded the city for committing to keep the centers open but said he was concerned that it would be a challenge to find groups that could run the centers for the long term.

"Especially given today's economic climate, I don't know of many organizations that have the resources to run them," said Miles, bishop of Koinonia Baptist Church. "I think the responsibility has to be the city's to provide adequate recreation facilities."

Miles is pushing for city officials to create a dedicated funding stream that would not be subject to budget cuts.

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