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Rec center privatization blasted at first public session

Mayor’s plan to spin off Baltimore’s rec centers to private operators called a bad deal for kids.

Above: Greg Bayor speaks at Chick Webb Rec Center last November. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Gregory Bayor, director of Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks department, insisted they were all on the same page, but the audience was having none of it.

Before a crowd of about 130 people at the Chick Webb Recreation Center last night, one after another speaker rejected Bayor’s claim that consolidating the city’s rec centers would improve after-school opportunities for children.

Instead, the speakers zeroed in on the effort to transfer many centers to private and nonprofit groups – and shut down some of the centers – which they said would only cause more children to turn to the streets and gang culture.

“As bad as they are, the rec centers save children’s lives,” Leon Purnell, executive director of The Men’s Center, said. “As bad as they are, they keep kids out of jail.”

The session was the first of several meetings designed to drum up support for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s plan to “transition” about 20 facilities to third parties. The hearing was called in part because of the disappointing response by private vendors to an RFP (Request for Proposals) to operate the centers.

The city is about to issue a second RFP for privatization, which Purnell called “a slap in the face” of the community.

About 140 people attended the meeting held in the gym of the Chick Webb Rec Center. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

More than 100 people attended the meeting in the gym of the Chick Webb center. Recreation Bureau Chief Bill Tyler stands at the front of the room. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

“How Can We Stop This?”

Bayor and Recreation Bureau Chief Bill Tyler were flanked by artists’ renderings of modern rec centers that would partly come, they said, from spinning off obsolete or poorly attended centers.

At one point, Tyler was telling the audience that adjustments would have to be made in order “to make strides to the future,” when Genny Dill, president of the Roosevelt Rec Council in Hampden, cut short his talk with a blunt question.

“How can we stop this?” she said, to loud applause.

“I can’t give you an answer,” Tyler replied.

Gary W. Stanford Jr., a volunteer basketball coach at the Fred B. Leidig center in West Baltimore, said he started a petition drive to oppose any “private takeovers.” He said the Leidig center is a godsend to four communities – Beechfield, Tremont, Yale Heights and Irvington – and even attracts kids from Catonsville in Baltimore County.

Changing the center’s successful operation – “we generate an income of approximately $3,000 a month and help about three-four different recreation centers with money and equipment” – would disrupt a program that has enrolled 4,400 children since 2003.

In an emotional speech, Stanford accused Bayor and Tyler of just following orders. “Rawlings-Blake should have been here tonight,” he said. “If she can raise millions of dollars for her own campaign [for re-election], she should be able to raise a lot less for children in this city.”

Following his fiery language, Dawn Hampton explained how the Leidig rec center has helped her two children, now ages 13 and 15.

“I enrolled my son in what was and still is his dream, basketball. In the last five years, he has learned the game and won championship games. This has taught him how to pay as a team, how to work with others… My daughter is on the track team and has won many medals for her team.”

She added, in a carefully typed statement she gave to The Brew: “In this day and age where crime and gangs are taking over neighborhoods, it is not a wise decision, for any reason, to take away something that has been positive and beneficial to so many.”

"People do not buy the argument that the city doesn't have the money," Susan Saudek told Rec officials. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Budget Shortfall

The city budget office said there is a $300,000 shortfall – part of a $1.5 million cut in this year’s Rec and Parks budget – that would force the closure of some rec centers after Dec. 31.

Tyler has vowed to keep all 55 rec centers open while the RFP process is ongoing, but cautioned that the bottom line was that the current set-up cannot continue.

“Do the math,” he said several times.

Susan Saudek responded, “People do not buy the argument that the city doesn’t have the money.”

Saudek, who volunteers at the Crispus Attucks Rec Center in Madison Park, continued, “The city gives these huge tax breaks to developers through something called PILOTs [Payments in Lieu of Taxes]. That could go to rec centers. I’d like you to take that message to the mayor.”

“Are you Willing to Work with People?”

A number of speakers said they were intimidated by the 60-page RFP document, and asked the Rec officials for help in navigating through its stipulations and requirements.

“Are you willing to work with people who have a passion to help their community instead of shooting us down?” asked Adrian Mitchell, who operates a nonprofit group in Edmondson Village.

The officials said they were committed to engaging the community. Shawn Burnett, a clothes designer and artist, approached Joseph Mazza, city purchasing chief who attended the meeting, to discuss how to respond to the RFP.

A final speaker, Freddie Watkins, recalled playing as a child at Chick Webb, a mainstay in East Baltimore and one of the city’s oldest rec centers (opened in 1949).

“We got a lot of angry people in this room,” he said, looking around, “and I think it’s because we’re really losing a generation.

“I’ve been around a lot of killings. I’ve been to jail. Now I’m a concerned father. I got a son. I’m worried – if they close this center, or other centers, he and his friends [will] have nowhere to play free of drugs and violence.”

City Purchasing Chief Joseph Mazza answers questions by artist Shawn Burnett about the second RFP for city rec centers, expected to be issued at the end of the week. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

City Purchasing Chief Joseph Mazza answers questions by artist Shawn Burnett about a second RFP, expected to be issued shortly, calling for more private rec operators. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

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