A civic battle is brewing in Baltimore over the mayor's $136 million plan to fund recreation center improvements.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the new plan last month (read at the bottom of this page). Under the proposal, the money would be invested in fitness and wellness centers, community centers, outdoor and indoor pools and splash pads, and athletic field complexes.
"Our goal is to transition the city's aging recreation centers into a new network of high-quality facilities in order to better serve Baltimore's communities," Rawlings-Blake said when the proposal was released. "This plan is a necessary investment in our city and a result of my commitment to quality recreation programming for all residents."
Rawlings-Blake called for the Baltimore City Council to bring forward a plan presented last year that would sell four city-owned parking garages downtown and dedicate the proceeds to recreation center improvements. The plan is expected to take between 10 and 15 years to complete, and Rawlings-Blake said construction could move ahead more quickly if the garages are sold.
The sale of the garages would raise up to $60 million, according to the Baltimore Sun.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is pushing for a different source of funding. He plans to introduce a resolution Monday calling for the sale of the city-owned Hilton Hotel to raise money for the plan. His plan has support from several council members, according to the Sun.
"It's quite simple: Those parking garages have a surplus almost every year. Parking in Baltimore city is at a premium. You don't sell a valuable asset," Councilwoman Helen Holton told the Sun. "The Hilton has never turned a profit. Maybe this is an indication we need to get out of the hotel business."
Eleven fitness and wellness centers are targeted for facility upgrades or new construction projects, according to the plan. The centers are expected to cost $84 million and add more than 299,000 square feet of new recreation space, with three centers featuring indoor pools.
Three fitness and wellness centers currently are under construction or in design at a cost of $28 million.
The new centers in the plan are larger in square footage, offer more programming with longer operating hours, incorporate an indoor pool and are projected to generate revenue. The locations are expected to serve as a hub for a range of recreational activities, including fitness and wellness, aquatics, youth and adult sports, environmental education and outdoor programs.
The plan is guided by 10 principles, including the mayor's goal to increase Baltimore's population by 10,000 families by providing "state-of-the-art recreation facilities and programs" to serve residents and grow the city's tax base.
Baltimore stopped operating 14 of its 55 recreation centers as part of Rawlings-Blake's overhaul of city recreation programming since 2012, according to the Sun. Four centers were closed, and 10 centers were transferred to private groups or school systems.
"Before I came into office, the city was closing recreation centers without any substantive plan to fill the gaps," Rawlings-Blake said. "With this proposal, and with the funding source that we have identified, we can provide better opportunities for our children to be safe and engaged. I urge the Council to give my plan a hearing."