The battle continues over the future of nearly half the city’s recreational centers.

Gregory Baylor, director of Recreation and Parks, and Recreation Bureau Chief Bill Tyler met with residents at the Chick Webb Recreation Center on Nov. 30 in an attempt to gain community support for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake’s plan to hand over the cash-strapped centers to a third party.

It’s a plan, officials said, that will prevent the closure of 25 centers due to a $60 million deficit in the cost to maintain city services.

Opponents to the plan, much like everyone else in the room that night, argue that closing the centers would only hurt city children, exposing them further to crime and violence.

Some stood up to voice their opposition to “private takeovers,” others expressed disdain at the mayor for not being present to directly address her constituents.

Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership and Development (BUILD) and staunch opponent to the plan, has previously stopped short of calling Rawlings-Blake a liar who is trying to break a commitment made in August to keep all the centers open.

At times passionate emotion filled the room as speakers took turns telling the officials about the role the recreational centers played in their lives and their children’s lives.

The Request for Proposal issued by the Mayor’s Office seeking vendors to operate the troubled facilities angered many. A spokesperson for the mayor said only seven viable partnerships have been identified and that without an organization to take over, the centers would close.

The city plans to issue a second RFP, which Leon Purnell adamantly opposes. He called it “a slap in the face.”

“These rec centers keep kids out of jail,” he said.

Tyler promised that all 55 centers would remain open during the second RFP process.

In the summer of 2010 city officials faced another public debacle over closing city pools. The city claimed it did not have the money to keep pools open and closed them a month early. Community leaders, city council members and the mayor’s office went back and forth assigning blame, but in the end private donations totaling just over $500,000 saved the day.

That scenario seems an unlikely ending to the current saga.

According to the city budget office, the Department of Parks and Recreation is facing a $1.5 million cut.

Gary Stanford, a volunteer basketball coach, adamantly expressed his disbelief that the city does not have the money to keep the centers open.

“If the mayor can raise millions of dollars for her campaign, she can raise the money for the children in this city,” he said.

 

Melissa Jones

Special to the AFRO