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Philly will begin to open dozens of recreation centers on weekends by this fall

The Department of Parks and Recreation will need to go on a hiring spree to make it happen.

Youngsters play in the Eugene Broadwater 3-on-3 Classic at the A.W. Christy Recreation Center in West Philadelphia Thursday. It is one of dozens of rec centers in Philadelphia that will soon have funded weekend hours.
Youngsters play in the Eugene Broadwater 3-on-3 Classic at the A.W. Christy Recreation Center in West Philadelphia Thursday. It is one of dozens of rec centers in Philadelphia that will soon have funded weekend hours.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia will begin opening more than 50 city recreation centers on weekends this fall in response to growing calls for more safe spaces for the city’s children and teenagers.

The $5.8 billion city budget approved by Council Thursday includes a $2.5 million line item for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to open about half of the city’s recreation centers — those that have gymnasiums — for an additional two days per week. Before the funding, recreation centers were open more than five days a week on only an ad hoc basis.

Parks and Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup said residents can expect to see the impact of the new funding about three months after the start of the fiscal year, which begins July 1. In that time, she said, the department will recruit, hire, and onboard the workers needed to staff the centers, and officials hope to start opening sites on the weekends “by basketball season.”

The $2.5 million is enough to fund about 50 full-time positions. Filling them will take time amid a broader shortage of public-sector workers.

The department already has about 170 vacancies — 50 of which are supporting recreation centers. And it is in the midst of a massive campaign to hire hundreds of workers to staff city pools this summer. Soukup said the department is working closely with the city’s Office of Human Resources to develop a recruitment campaign for recreation center staffing.

These are the 52 recreation centers with gyms that the city will begin opening by this fall, according to the department:

The new funding agreed to during the budget negotiation process came atop Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed 4% increase to the department’s allocation. Under the new deal, Parks and Recreation will have a $73.1 million budget, which represents a restoration of pandemic-era cuts. Parks and Recreation saw its budget slashed by $11 million in 2020 as the city was staring down a $750 million budget hole amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, the city received an infusion of cash as a result of the federal American Rescue Plan, and community advocates and activists have lobbied the city to restore the cuts. Some frame it as an issue of public safety, saying recreation centers can serve as critical safe havens for youth, especially in neighborhoods that see disproportionately high rates of gun violence.

During a budget hearing for the Department of Parks and Recreation in April, several City Councilmembers questioned Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell about the feasibility of opening the centers on weekends.

» READ MORE: 50 of 65 public swimming pools are set to open over the next several weeks

She said the department wasn’t funded to do so — that the $2.7 million budget increase proposed by the Kenney administration was for Parks and Recreation to increase the presence of maintenance workers at sites in Kensington “in direct response to community concerns around quality of life.”

“I don’t know that the department has ever been funded to operate more than five days a week,” she said.

Several members made clear it was a priority. West Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said during the hearing that the administration’s proposal was a funding “floor,” not a ceiling.

“I still don’t believe that meets what this moment is calling for,” she said, “which is a historic investment in parks and recreation to help our kids emerge from COVID and to combat the gun violence crisis.”

And on Thursday, at-large Councilmember Isaiah Thomas — who has prioritized advocating for more programming for children and teenagers — applauded the move, saying the city has been focused on gun violence intervention and is “not doing nearly enough on gun violence prevention.” He said weekend hours are ”youth-centered.”

“Quality, engaging youth programming such as athletics or the arts put young people on a great path,” he said, “to not only survive, but thrive.”