Community group presses ahead with plan to take over rec center

Inside the former Barclay Recreation Center on Saturday, the smell of fumes filled the air as a band of volunteers spent the morning putting on a fresh coat of paint in anticipation of its reopening under new management later this year.

The city's Department of Recreation and Parks shut down the center last August after 32 years and handed it over to the neighboring Barclay Elementary and Middle School. Volunteers from the area finally started working earlier this year to get the facility back up and running.

John Bernet, the assistant director of neighborhood programs with the Greater Homewood Community Corp., has big plans for the East 29th Street building and wants to prove that it can be run better by the community than the city.

"We're chipping away little by little," Bernet said of the preparations. "It had been under-loved."

Over Presidents Day weekend, a crew of volunteers cleaned out the rooms in the two-story, mostly windowless building, but the walls still needed attention.

By noon Saturday, new duck-egg-blue paint was up in the front room of the center, thanks to quick work by a group of volunteers from Black Professional Men, a community organization. In a back room, a father and his two children were also busily at work.

"Our goal is to improve the lives of youth in the area," said Kyle Skinner, one of the volunteers.

City officials announced last May that they would reduce the city's 55 rec centers to 31, closing four West Baltimore sites completely while giving others to the school system or private groups to run. The city then planned to focus its spending on the remaining centers and building four modern centers from scratch.

That left people like Bernet looking for ideas about how to keep the centers running. He said the various groups are each experimenting with different models to find one that works.

"Everyone is doing something a little different," said Bernet, who hopes that his vision for the Barclay center could be copied elsewhere if it proves sustainable.

But financing the center has been a challenge. Previously, the city spent around $150,000 a year on each facility, according to a mayoral task force report.

A team from the Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School agreed to come up with a business plan for the Barclay center, which currently has a complicated set of arrangements to pay its bills. The school system leased the building for a dollar from the parks department, Barclay Elementary/Middle pitched in some of its budget, and Johns Hopkins committed $40,000 a year for three years.

In addition Bernet is working on grant applications, trying to convince volunteers to do as much of the work as possible, and looking for help wherever he can get it.

"There's an Eagle Scout who's interested in painting the hallway," Bernet said. And a plea in a previous Baltimore Sun article led to a donation of school chairs, which were stacked up around the center.

He also wants to make the center more than just a space for kids, as it was in its previous existence, offering classes for adults and hosting family events.

"The idea is to have it as a lively spot," Bernet added.

He has his eyes on a May or June opening date and wants to hold a competition to rename the 7,500-square-foot facility to reflect its new role in the community and location at the junction of the Charles Village, Harwood and Abell neighborhoods.

An old plaque on an outside wall still announces the center's connection to the city's Recreation and Parks Department, but taking it down is a job for another day, Bernet said.

"I have bigger fish to fry right now."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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