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Groups slated to run rec centers have few resources, money problems

The Board of Estimates is set to give control of six youth centers to financially shaky parties.

Above: Now-closed Easterwood in West Baltimore would be operated by Omega Baltimore under a plan before Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the the Board of Estimates.

((UPDATE: The four rec center bids were abruptly pulled from the Board of Estimates agenda and one operator, Little Dimples II, has completely withdrawn its bid.))

Do the four private companies slated to become operators of Baltimore’s recreation centers have the financial wherewithal to sustain themselves once the city’s $200,000 in seed money is exhausted?

And, equally important, do they have the expertise and experience to be entrusted with several thousand children and teenagers?

These are among the questions that emerge from The Brew’s analysis of bid documents from the first round of the Request for Proposals (RFPs) for private management of city rec centers.

The Board of Estimates yesterday published the names of four groups picked by the Department of Recreation and Parks to manage six facilities under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s controversial overhaul of the rec system.

The spending board has scheduled a vote tomorrow to turn over the Brooklyn O’Malley center to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore, the Liberty and Woodhome centers to Little Dimples II Corp., the Collington Square and Lillian Jones centers to Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project Inc. (ROCACP), and the Easterwood center to the Omega Baltimore Foundation.

The Brew – which last week reported that these centers were among the 18 facilities the city wants to privatize – examined the bid documents, as well as other public records. (Documents for Omega Baltimore Foundation are not on file at the City Comptroller’s Office and thus could not be reviewed.)

One of Operators Tells Brew He Can’t Proceed

All three operators submitting RFPs expressed a desire to run the centers for the public good and emphasized their credentials and expertise in childcare. But a review also points to potential financial and operational deficiencies:

The operators are thinly capitalized and the owner of one company – Little Dimples II – has a history of financial setbacks.

• Boys and Girls Clubs says it will be forced to withdraw its proposal to run Brooklyn O’Malley if the city does not cough up $100,000 in seed money.

• All three operators are currently out of compliance with Baltimore’s minority business enterprise (MBE) and women’s business enterprise (WBE) participation goals.

Only Boys and Girls Clubs reports actual experience in running a rec center.

• Little Dimples and ROCACP seek to partially convert the rec centers into fee-based daycare or adult treatment centers.

Rec and Parks officials have declined to comment on the substance of the bids until they are acted on by the Board of Estimates.

Here are profiles of the four proposed operators.

1 – Boys and Girls Clubs

The group was formed in February 2009 following the close of Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore LLC.

The group currently serves 2,500 children and youths at four “club sites” – three at public housing projects and one at the C.C. Jackson center in Park Heights, which the group partners with Rec and Parks. The group also maintains a club site at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.

The group receives most of its funds from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. It also receives corporate and foundation grants, including $35,000 last year from the Cal Ripkin Sr. Foundation.

But it has no endowment and few assets. On its 2009 federal tax returns, it reported a negative fund balance of $53,9494 and total assets of $1,945.

The non-profit proposed to operate “a comprehensive and full-service” athletic program for the Brooklyn O’Malley center, with a first-year budget of $220,860, increasing to $228,643 by year three.

The group sought, but did not receive, $100,000 in seed money from the city.

This  means,  according to CEO Kenneth R. Darden, that the group will be forced to withdraw its proposal.

“The bottom line is that without the seed money, Boys and Girls Clubs won’t be able to proceed,” Darden said in an interview today. “We were seriously hoping to run the [Brooklyn O’Malley] center, but with our current finances the way they are, we simply could not do that.”

Darden said he has communicated to Rec and Parks officials that seed money is needed – and hopes an arrangement can be worked out with the city.

Currently, the Board of Estimates is set to approve the transfer of Brooklyn O’Malley to the Boys and Girls Clubs at tomorrow’s weekly meeting.

2 – Little Dimples II Corp.

Little Dimples is a for-profit business that bills itself as having 25 years of “community programming experience, sports management, child care services, recreation programming and financial management.” It operates the Phyllis Wheatley Education Center, a day-care facility located in a public housing project in East Baltimore.

Its owner, director and CEO, Thomas Hardnett Jr., proposes to set up Liberty and Woodhome (repeatedly spelled “Woodholme” in the RFP) as “charter community centers.” Hardnett says Little Dimples and a company he controls, Bugg, Hardnett & Associates, “will collectively provide the working capital for the profit [stet] of operating, managing and financially sustaining” the two centers.

Hardnett proposes to use the Liberty and Woodhome centers as before-and-after school centers and as day-care centers. Fully 60% of each center’s budget would be funded by fees charged for children between ages 5 and 12, with another 15% of revenues coming from fees for summer camp.

Each center has a proposed budget of $147,890, or 48% less than the budget of Brooklyn O’Malley.

The city plans to provide the Woodhome center with a $100,000 seed grant, which Hardnett says he would use for capital improvements, a computer lab and playground enhancements.

Hardnett’s financial reversals are documented in state court and taxation records. Two of his companies – Little Dimples Enterprises and Little Dimples III – went into bankruptcy after they were ordered to pay $43,111 to Regal Bank and Trust in late 2005.

Since then, as he opened and closed at least two other day-care centers, Hardnett has had legal disputes with Meals on Wheels, Advance Business Systems & Supply and Green Meadows Cultural Events, Inc., according to court records.

The latter two groups say Little Dimples II owes them more than $5,000. Last month, creditors foreclosed on his Pikesville house for $90,000 in arrears, according to filings in the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Hardnett did not return phone and e-mail messages left this morning by The Brew at his contact addresses.

3 – Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project

A social worker by training, Dante L. Wilson formed ROCACP in 2003 as a non-profit organization aimed at rebuilding communities. He was awarded the Collington Square and Lillian Jones facilities, along with $50,000 in seed money.

Wilson proposes to go far beyond athletics to provide “a holistic array of services to the community” at the centers.

“We would like to expound [stet] on the traditional perception of a recreation center to include family strengthening, mental health services, community outreach, cultural enrichment activities, monthly respite, monthly workshops, cognitive restructure job readiness for welfare-to-work adults, ex-offenders and at-risk juveniles age 6-21, etc,” his RFP proposal reads.

Wilson hopes to fund all these activities through government and foundation grants and from being licensed as a child-care and mental health-care provider, the documents say. Within three years he says he hopes to establish psychiatric rehabilitation programs for ex-offenders and substance abusers.

ROCACP is “not in good standing” with the Maryland Department of Assessments, according to the Board of Estimates agenda. Last month the organization was slapped with a $1,400 judgment by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Reached this morning, Wilson said he could not speak because he was about to attend a meeting and asked that a reporter call him later.

Upon receiving the second call, Wilson hung up the phone and did not return a voice message later sent by The Brew.

4 – Omega Baltimore Foundation

The group was incorporated in April of this year by the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, whose Pi Omega Chapter in Baltimore has for many years sponsored scholarships for college students and tennis and golf tournaments for young men.

Omega was awarded the Easterwood rec center in West Baltimore, along with $50,000 in seed money. The facility is currently closed. Two messages left with Zanes E. Cypress Jr., the manager of Omega Baltimore, were not returned.

The group’s bid document is missing from the public files maintained by the City Comptroller’s Office.
The Brew is seeking to obtain the documents through the city Department of Purchasing, which is handling the RFP.

How the Operators Were Selected

A committee consisting mostly of Recreation and Parks officials and headed by Rec Bureau Chief Bill Tyler selected the first round of bidders. There were a total of about 12 proposals by private groups, but the panel whittled down to number to six awards.

Bidders had to score a minimum of 210 points (out of 300 points) across 14 criteria – including $3 million in insurance covering sexual molestation and $1 million in auto insurance – to be considered.

The RFP says all successful bidders must “demonstrate the ability to operate/manage the recreation center in a manner that is consistent with the vision and goals of the City of Baltimore via BCRP [Baltimore City Recreation and Parks] as well as the community.”

In addition to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the Board of Estimates, which will vote on the rec center package tomorrow, consists of City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, City Solicitor George Nilson and Public Works Director Alfred Foxx.

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