Pillar Design Studios provided design presentations for the proposed skatepark at Easterwood Park.

Over 10 years ago, students from Matthew A. Henson Elementary School lamented to adult mentors of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity about the loss of Easterwood Recreation Center, which had been closed for several years. The Pi Omega Chapter of the fraternity has had a local office on Presbury Street since the early 1980s and developed a strong relationship with the community.

In response to the students, several members of the fraternity decided to come together and create a nonprofit, the Omega Baltimore Foundation, that could reopen and operate, manage and provide programming for the recreation center. In 2011, the foundation was granted that opportunity and they formed a partnership with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks.

Zanes E. Cypress Jr., the recreation center’s director, said the nonprofit status allows them to apply for grants that can bring resources to an underserved community.

For years, discussions have revolved around putting a skate park at Easterwood Park near the recreation center, an issue that came to a head earlier this week when some in the neighborhood learned the skate park was no longer included in plans for the park’s renovation.

But the Omega Baltimore Foundation did not support that idea. Although they do not oversee the park because of its proximity to the recreation center, they have a stake in what happens to it.

“It makes no sense to drop a skatepark [there]. Those public dollars can be used for the entire park,” Cypress said.

Baltimore City Recreation and Parks told The Baltimore Banner that the city allocated $300,000 for the design of the skate park in 2020 and an additional $350,000 in 2022, along with a $500,000 grant from the state for improvements to Easterwood Park. The $500,000 grant was “approved with the stipulation to exclude construction of the skate park” per Sen. Antonio Hayes, which came as a surprise to some of the skate park’s advocates.

Hayes said that his objections to the construction of the skate park were in response to what his “constituents” wanted.

Cypress would not comment on whether he had a discussion with Hayes before the funds were redirected. But he said he completely supports Hayes’ decision to redirect funds to address improvements in the entire park. The park needs a strategic master plan, Cypress said, that takes into account the needs of the entire community.

“It’s a great meeting place for everyone, so it should support everyone … If you want to do something, make a master plan that the entire community can benefit from instead of one segment [of the community],” he said, insisting that he hardly sees people skateboarding in the neighborhood.

Cypress said the area would benefit from a 21st century community center. But for now, concrete walkways, the playground, and fencing need to be repaired, he said, and the existing basketball courts need renovations. He said the skatepark could also be an attraction for drug activity.

In separate interviews, Cypress and Hayes shared concerns about crime and the skate park’s impact on two frequented basketball courts at the park. The proposed skate park was located within the footprint of the existing basketball court, Whitney Brown, a public relations officer with the parks department said. In follow-up community meetings, Brown continued, community feedback made clear that two basketball courts were wanted.

Stephanie Murdock, president of Skatepark Baltimore, and community activist Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, who have been advocating for the skate park, shared their frustrations with the indefinite pause on construction.

“I feel like I’ve been strung along … there’s room for all of us,” Murdock said.

Murdock compiled a timeline of efforts pushing for the skate park, including letters of support for a 2019 grant application submitted to the Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. The grant application for $250,0000 did not receive funding, according to NHS, but Murdock said one of the letters of support for the grant was from Hayes.

When asked about the letter in support of a skate park, and what changed in the years since he wrote it, Hayes confirmed that it did come from his office. He also added that his gesture of support proves that he doesn’t have anything against skate parks. After further engagement, Hayes said, the community raised legitimate concerns about building something new in the park instead of addressing the already dilapidated state of some its features.

“I’m not backing away from my support for skate parks. … We had to reprioritize because of community concern,” Hayes said.

Correction

An updated version of this story reflects that a grant application for $250,000 was submitted to the Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore.

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