The man who wants to move Baltimore’s youth recreation centers into the 21st century is very impatient.
Jumping out of a Recreation and Parks Department van last week, Bill Tyler casts his eye on the entrance to the Hilton Rec Center in West Baltimore. He’s not happy.
“At the very least, we need a prominent sign, the city logo, a department logo and the building’s name,” he says, pointing to the unadorned red-washed wall.
Pacing through the front door, he stares at the rubber mats on the floor. “They’ve been down for so many years. Nothing here is inviting! You look at this and there is a lack of quality.”
Tyler is the point man for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s drive to turn over some rec centers to private management, or close them, and modernize others into state-of-the-art community centers.
The 55-year-old administrator, who was hired by the city 18 months ago, essentially is calling for a cultural revolution in Baltimore when it comes to “recs.”
“We need to change our mindset, change the environment and get people outside of their comfort zone,” he says, referring to the city’s tightly-knit, neighborhood-focused centers. “For a poor community, maybe that’s all they expect. But we say, ‘Expect higher standards!’”
For links to THE BREW’s coverage of the rec center controversy, see bottom of this post.
Holding on to the centers doesn’t serve the needs of children and represents a colossal failure of ambition, Tyler argues. “To turn the corner on the 21st century,” he says, the city needs to consolidate the facilities into mega-centers that would serve as community facilities, rather than strictly handling youth programs and some senior activities.
It will take three to five years to develop this new model of recreation, he says, with two centers – at Clifton Park and Morrell Park – already under construction.
With state Program Open Space funds and other capital funds already approved by city voters, Tyler says a new era of modern youth and adult centers could be created in Baltimore, greatly improving the quality of life.
Undeterred by the Flak
The administration’s plan to privatize some existing rec centers has encountered strong opposition in community meetings, but Tyler seems undeterred.
He says the city has no choice but to consolidate its 61 rec centers (55 in operation) and modernize the best facilities.
He believes the administration turned the corner last month when the Board of Estimates approved transferring four centers to three private operators – Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Baltimore, Omega Baltimore Foundation, and Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project.
On January 25, a second round of bids is due from interested parties. Tyler expects more private organizations and community groups to “step up to the table” and take over the 11 rec centers listed in the city’s RFP (Request for Proposals) by private operators.
To demonstrate the city’s needs, the rec chief invited The Brew to go with him on an inspection of four centers – Hilton, Central Rosemont, Rosemont and Greenmount – slated for private management.
Here is our report:
HILTON, 2950 Phelps Lane
One of the smallest rec centers, Hilton is only 5,423 square feet. Immaculately clean, the front room has the faint smell of ammonia. The walls are brightly painted, but the colors – pink and green – disturb the rec chief.
“There are no standardized colors,” he laments. (Along with a logo, Tyler wants all centers to have an identifiable color scheme.)
In the game room, he points to the foosball table. “They don’t even make that anymore.”
He pronounces the pool table in fairly decent condition, and adds, “People obviously take pride in the building, but there is only so much you can do with pride.”
He enters the computer room, only to find there are no computers. “And we expect our kids to be competitive. . .” He trails off in apparent disbelief.
Hilton is open between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. Because we are here in the morning, it’s hard to know how much the center is used. The custodian says the center has lots of activities – football, lacrosse, soccer, color guard, track and field, arts and crafts, ceramics, crochet, modeling and Great Science for Girls, a program funded by the National Science Foundation.
One of the biggest draws, she adds, is the marching band, which attracts about 25 teenage participants during its evening practices.
While half listening to the custodian, Tyler sees the push-button doorbell at the front door. He seizes upon the discovery. This is exactly the kind of ancient technology that Baltimore citizens should no longer accept, he says.
ROSEMONT, 1201 N. Rosedale St.
Located beside a housing project on the side of a wooded hill, this rec center has sat empty for the last 2½ years.
It had been one of 18 PAL (Police Athletic League) clubs until 1999, when they were turned over by the Police Department to Recreation and Parks as a budget-cutting measure.
Rec and Parks found it couldn’t pay for upkeep either, and the Rosemont PAL was closed despite widespread and sustained community calls that it stay open.
The place is heated, the lights work (more or less), but otherwise the place is a mess. It reeks of mold. In what appears to have been an arts and crafts room, a battered and bent sink drips water.
Tyler looks disgusted. “We’re still paying utilities, still paying for lights. This place” – he gestures to peeling paint hanging from the ceiling – “still costs the city money.”
Tyler is there to meet with potential private operators. Only one shows up. James A. McCray represents Loving Arms. The youth advocacy group is looking for a bigger space, McCray tells Tyler, and the center fits the bill.
But as McCray walks through the rooms, he appears discouraged. “This is pretty tough,” he says. “It’s not that [the building] can’t be fixed, but it will take a lot of work and money.”
In its first round of bids, the city dispensed $150,000 in seed money to three private operators. In the upcoming round, which includes the Rosemont center, the total seed money for 11 facilities is $150,000 – $200,000, depending on several factors.
The odds that Loving Arms would be able to pick up a check for $50,000 or $100,000 to rehab this building appear remote. And without some subsidy, the group would have a hard time operating the facility, not to speak of modernizing it, McCray says.
CENTRAL ROSEMONT, 2621 Winchester St.
This 9,000-square-foot facility, attached to Calverton Elementary School, features just about everything Tyler finds old, obsolete and unimaginative about the rec facilities he supervises.
In its largest room, a basketball court vies with a television set and a bank of mirrors along a wall.
“A TV entertainment center and a makeshift mirror for a dance class! All in the basketball court. Horrible! Horrible! I have never seen anything like this in my life.”
Asked if he wished to be quoted, he nodded, yes, and added: “I have been shocked [with the state of Baltimore’s rec centers] since the day I got here.”
That was 18 months ago when Tyler was hired by his former boss, Gregory A. Bayor, who was named head of Recreation and Parks by Mayor Rawlings-Blake in April 2010.
Bayor and Tyler had worked together in the recreation department in Montgomery County, with Tyler serving 11 years, six years as a division chief.
“We did a lot of good work in Montgomery County,” Tyler said of the two. They oversaw the construction of at least five new community centers.
Tyler took a job with the city of Las Vegas in 2004, managing before- and after-school programs at 70 different sites. He worked in Nevada for seven years before rejoining Bayor in Baltimore.
As we leave the facility, Tyler and assistant Kenn King glance at a plaque that says the building was opened by “City of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, Mayor” in 1977. The date seems to stick in Tyler’s mind as we climb back into the van.
“We need to turn the corner on the 21st century, so they [the rec centers] don’t cost an arm and a leg to run, and so people will begin to have confidence in our product.”
Asked how Baltimore fell so far behind, he says, “Years and years of neglect in terms of consistent maintenance. It’s going to take a well-thought-out strategic plan [to update the buildings].”
He falls silent for a few minutes.
“We have great people. We believe what we do is vital to the community. We just need to improve our facilities. Simply put, we can do better. And the community deserves better.”
GREENMOUNT, 2304 Greenmount Ave.
This is one of the city’s largest centers – 12,470 square feet on two floors. It has truncated hours, from 2:30-9 p.m. on weekdays (3 p.m. on Tuesdays). The building features a basketball court, game room, weight room and has computer classes, roller skating, karate and sewing classes.
Tyler’s assessment of the physical plant is again critical. The basketball court’s surface is old and the room cannot be used for a tournament, he says, “because it’s a box” and doesn’t have space for bleachers.
The weight room, while relatively big, is full of outdated equipment. He kicks up some worn floor padding under a lifting machine and pronounces the room unsafe for the use of barbells.
Outside the building, as we return to the van, a woman buttonholes two of Tyler’s assistants.
She says she’s heard the building is “going to be auctioned off by the city.”
They laugh and assure her that the building won’t be sold. But the facility is on the list of centers that, if not taken over by a private operator, may be closed in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, when the rec center budget is expected to be further cut by the mayor’s office.
“It would be really nice if some of the large organizations, like the YMCA, could step up to the table,” Tyler muses on the way back to the Rec and Parks administration building in Druid Hill Park.
“But they have their own trials and tribulations.”
THE BREW’S RECENT COVERAGE OF REC CENTER CONTROVERSY:
Proposed rec center operator withdraws bid (12/15/11)