So Brew readers, ready or not, you’re going to get a little peek into our world, via this new blog, “Below the Fold.”
We thought “Below the Fold” would be a good place to explain what we’re doing and who we are. We’re not salaried employees of a media chain, nor are we outsourced drones overseas, miserably toiling for long hours, at low pay.
We’re your neighbors here in Baltimore, we’re professional reporters and we’re quite cheerful most days – especially when we’ve had a run of good stories, as we have lately. But the part about the toiling and the long hours and the low pay – that’s true!
It’s why we hope you’ll support us via Kickstarter (we’re trying to raise $15,000 in 45 days) and join us on this blog for a conversation about what we do, how we do it, why we do it and where we oughtta take The Brew from here.
I’m hoping BTF will be an entertaining and nutritious blend of: crazy stuff we saw while reporting, interesting people we ran into and tooting our own horn because, well who else is going to do it? And it’s actually pretty interesting.
Devil’s in the Details
You should care about these public recreation centers, whether your kids use them or not. The city, citing budget shortfalls, wants to consolidate them – closing some and handing others over to private operators. For years, rec centers have been a bulwark against ‘the streets’ in communities across Baltimore, providing after-school homework help, a safe place for kids to hang out and play sports or participate in the arts, a lively haven for seniors.
Could shutting many of them down and focusing resources on a few large centers make life better for kids?
Not if the operators are questionable. Mark looked at the bid documents for three of the four operators (the fourth wasn’t available) and found shaky finances – and only one with experience running recs. Typos in the operators’ proposals did not inspire confidence either. And, whoa, one operator was proposing to convert part of the facility into a fee-based daycare center or adult treatment center.
Quick, is There a Reporter in the House?!
The public had no idea about any of this.
Mark and I knew we had to get this story out as fast as we could on Tuesday because the city was set to vote on the bids at the Wednesday Board of Estimates meeting. They were going to approve these things! That’s how this spending panel’s meetings go. With very little discussion – Kaching! – they’re over and a thick packet of expenditures are approved.
Not this time, though.
In a highly unusual move, Recreation and Parks pulled the rec center bids off the Board of Estimates’ agenda “to allow for additional time for outreach with individual stakeholders.” This news came just hours after we published Mark’s story. Then came the news, confirmed by our sources, that one of the operator was completely withdrawing its bid.
Time for the Takeaway
I’m going to deliver this in bullet points (because it’s 10 p.m. and I’m really beat.)
- IT’S SORT OF AN OBVIOUS THING a news organizations would want to do, look into the background of these operators proposed for a controversial program. But it’s safe to say that . . .
- NOBODY ELSE WAS GOING TO DO THIS, review all these bid proposals and documents, I mean. The Sun is not covering the rec center story on this level and no other media are attempting to cover it in any but the most superficial way, perhaps because . . .
- IT’S A TON OF WORK! Over at Baltimore City Paper, Edward Ericson Jr. very graciously wrote a piece Wednesday praising Mark’s rec center scoop (CP had a good rec story in May, btw) but I thought I’d expand on that line where Ed says Mark got the story after “doing a quick background check” on the operators. Nothing quick about the process!
“For this story, I spent about 10 hours, over three days, combing through the bid records at City Hall,” Mark wrote me in an email, when I asked him to add up his time. “This included going through 12 city contracts involving the Rec Centers. Each contract is about 70 pages. Or close to 1,000 pages in all.”
He also searched court records and corporate and tax records to find out about the potential operators, research I know he began weeks ago. He also went out to look at the rec centers, including those planned for privatization. What I’m saying is . . .
- THIS STORY WAS PART OF MARK’S OVERALL STRATEGY and research on rec center privatization, going back months. This has involved going to community meetings, agency meetings — and interviewing about 35 people on the issue so far. We published the first detailed story on the rec privatization plan (back in August) and we’ve written 10 more articles on the subject — nearly all of them exclusives (on the rec center protest in Hampden, on City Council President Young coming out against closures, the city hall hearing, the community meetings, etc.) which The Sun and other media followed.
- IT’S JUST A FRACTION OF WHAT NEEDS DOING as you all know. Stories like this are hiding-in-plain-sight all around us and we can’t, with just our skeleton crew over here, do ‘em all.
- IT’S JUST A FRACTION OF WHAT WE DO AT THE BREW! This week we also “broke” the story of the bicycling Santa who gives you a pulled-pork sandwich as he delivers a Christmas tree (hey, to a lot of BBQ-loving people that qualifies as breaking “news!”), captured the denouement of Occupy Baltimore hours after the hammer came down (and the irony of he city handing them a “Free Speech Notice” as they show em the door) , analyzed and outlined (after more eye-straining research) the latest ways the city is spending your tax dollars and told you about the $12 bottle of wine that beat a $47 bottle in a blind tasting we conducted.
We do a lot. And we do it like Ginger Rogers, backwards, in high heels. Well, um, not Mark. With all his pedaling back and forth to City Hall on his bike, he prefers Rockports or Adidas.