Baltimore's rec center reality check

Our view: Mayor's idea to improve services at some community centers and turn others over to private groups needs some tweaking

October 13, 2011

The poor response to Baltimore's call for private groups to take over 31 of its recreation centers should prompt Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to rethink the plan she has pursued for upgrading the city's dilapidated facilities for young people. Just seven bids came in, even after the deadline was extended. Although a task force she asked to study the issue found that the status quo of 55 rec centers offering few programs in cramped, outdated facilities isn't adequately serving the city's needs, it is now evident that the group's proposed solution could also leave out many youths who desperately need the kind of opportunities a well-run rec center can provide. Finding a solution won't be easy, but proceeding with a plan that could shutter rec centers at the end of this year is the wrong answer.

The task force made a compelling case that most of the city's rec centers, which typically date to the 1960s, are far from ideal. A model rec center, they said, would be open from morning until night and on the weekends; would have professional staff on site; would offer a wide range of structured athletic and other recreation opportunities; and would have upgraded facilities including a kitchen, a gymnasium, a computer lab and multi-function space. The idea was to emphasize quality over quantity.

There's something to that. After all, youths are not well served by having a recreation center that is close to home but offers little more than a run-down shell of a building. The task force's idea is like what is commonly found in the suburbs; the model facility they call for is almost an exact description of Baltimore County's newest community center inRandallstown.

But what the quality-over-quantity idea takes insufficiently into account are the unique issues of Baltimore City that necessitated the large number of small rec centers in the first place. Mobility is a much bigger issue in the city than it is in the suburbs, and so is crime. One of the appendices in the task force's report is a map showing rates of juvenile crime and the locations of the rec centers. It makes clear that many of the centers that could potentially close are in areas that need them the most.

The task force and the Rawlings-Blake administration sought to overcome that problem (and the bad politics of closing rec centers) by seeking private groups to take over many of the facilities. There is clearly a great deal of interest among community groups in providing services for youth at community centers, but few have the wherewithal to meet the criteria of the city's request for proposals. The model the city is pursuing demands a great deal of the private operators in terms of finance and management, more than most small community groups can provide. The request for proposals called for $5 million in insurance, plus funds to pay for utilities, maintenance and staff, and it demanded that the groups be prepared to take over the centers by Nov. 14. That's a lot to ask.

To its credit, the Rawlings-Blake administration has indicated a willingness to learn from the experience of this round of bidding and to pursue alternative means for keeping rec centers running. There may be few groups with the capacity to fully take over a center — it is not yet clear whether even the seven that submitted bids are fully qualified. But that doesn't mean the city couldn't look into more creative ways to handle issues like insurance or different levels of partnership that allow groups to provide services without accepting all of the administrative and financial burdens of a rec center.

In the meantime, Baltimore should not start closing rec centers. Although the issue is frequently discussed in the context of the city's budget problems, the mayor's plan has very little fiscal impact because it combines shutting some centers with improving services at others. The task force estimated it would only save $300,000 to $400,000 a year and that the money should be plowed back into improving the remaining centers. The mayor is probably right that many of Baltimore's rec centers fall far short of what they should be and don't provide nearly the kind of programs that the city's children need and deserve. But that doesn't mean they have no value at all.

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