BUILD plans rec center rally

Councilman calls for hearing into closures

October 24, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

A coalition of church groups intends to demonstrate outside Baltimore's recreation and parks headquarters Wednesday to protest a plan that could lead to the closure of rec centers.

Separately, a city councilman called Monday for a hearing into the plan, which could lead to as many as 25 of the city's rec centers being turned over to private parties or closed by the end of the year.

Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, accused Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of breaking a promise to maintain 55 rec centers that she made at a campaign forum organized by the group in August.

"For us, yes means yes," said Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church. "To do less than that means that she was disingenuous, and we are holding her accountable to what she agreed to do publicly."

Miles said that religious leaders, children and parents planned to rally in front of the Recreation and Parks Department offices in Druid Hill Park Wednesday evening.

"Our children suffer and our seniors suffer at a time when developers are getting sweetheart deals from the city," he said.

The mayor has said she wants to target funds to improve 30 of the city's rec centers and either turn the rest over to third parties or close them. Seven applicants submited bids this month to run 16 centers, fewer than city officials said they had hoped for.

Miles, who was a member of a task force convened by Rawlings-Blake last year to analyze the centers, many of which are in disrepair, said that he felt the city had shown little effort in seeking bidders to run them.

The city's request for proposals required interested parties to secure $5 million in insurance and demonstrate that they could pay for salaries, utilties and routine maintenance and take over operations by Nov. 15.

"It seems like a back door way to close rec centers at a time when our children and seniors desperately need as many activities as possible," Miles said.

Miles also said that a report released by the city in August does not accurately summarize the task force's recommendations. He said the panel had advised the city to hold on to at least 40 rec centers and to bolster funding for private recreation programs in neighborhoods where officials were forced to close centers in very poor condition.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake declined to directly address Miles' accusations.

In a written statement, spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said "Bishop Miles' work on the task force to restructure recreation centers was invaluable, but, now is not the time to retreat from tough choices that will improve opportunities for kids over the long run and pretend that the status quo — dilapidated buildings, too few staff and programs — is getting the job done."

"That's why the proposed plan invests in building four new community centers, expands ten existing centers and adds new staff, programming and hours to sixteen centers. We need community organizations that care about kids to step-up in new ways to support recreation for kids because government can't do it alone," O'Doherty said.

O'Doherty has previously said that although Rawlings-Blake answered "yes" when asked at the BUILD forum if she would keep all 55 centers open, her response was meant to signal a general support for improving rec centers in the city.

In her more nuanced written answer to BUILD at the time, O'Doherty said, Rawlings-Blake explained that she intended to devote limited recreation funds to greatly improving 30 of the centers.

Twelve of 15 City Council members backed a resolution introduced by Councilman Bill Henry Monday calling for a hearing into the recreation system.

"As much as the mayor might say that keeping them all open is not an option, simply closing them should not be an option either," said Henry.

Henry said he thought recreation officials should be seeking community and nonprofit groups to partially run the centers — not the all-or-nothing proposition put forth in the request for proposals.

"So far, partnerhips have consisted of the city saying, 'Will you completely take this over for us,'" said Henry. "That's not the definition of a partnership."

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