At 60 years old, Pearlie Cornish gets up every morning to take her 40-minute walks in Cherry Hill. She heads a mile from her house on Seamon Avenue to Waterview Avenue, where she can overlook the Middle Branch area of the Patapsco River as she walks back.
But she no longer needs to walk that far for her daily exercise. On Wednesday, city leaders and residents celebrated the opening of the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center in Cherry Hill at Reedbird Park, two block from Cornish’s home.
“I’m looking forward to the new facility because I’d like to get back to weight training, and you have a lot of people around here that would love to have a gym," she said.
She used to have a job at one of the only gyms in the area, Harbor Fitness, located in MedStar Harbor Hospital, but that facility closed several years ago.
There was no other weight training facility in the Cherry Hill area prior to the arrival of the center, officials with the Department of Recreation and Parks confirmed.
Cherry Hill in South Baltimore — bounded by the Patapsco River to the north and east and railroad tracks to the south — is a primarily Black neighborhood that has historically experienced disinvestment. But a transformation of the 300 acres in the area is underway, according to the the Baltimore City Department of Planning, including plans to turn 11 miles of shoreline along the Middle Branch into network of parks, trails and public recreation sites.
“Where the Middle Branch facility sits, you have the ability to be at the new rec center with new sports fields underway already but when you go to Middle Branch park itself — that sits on the water — we’re talking about revitalization there where trails are going to be done and folks will be able to go out and kayak,” Mayor Brandon Scott told The Baltimore Banner. “All of it ties in together because it becomes a destination where families are drawn to.”
At 35,000 square feet, the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center is the city’s largest rec center, boasting three pools, a community room, fitness studios, a gymnasium with a basketball court, an indoor walking track and outdoor basketball courts. The site will also feature a maker space an adjacent multipurpose facility and a playing field.
Capacity at the $23 million center is 1,500 people.
Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Executive Director Reginald Moore said that site will be available to all residents. The only requirement for entry will be an ID card issued by the center.
“This is the pinnacle of recreation advancement for Baltimore City,” Moore said in a statement. “The new Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center not only reimagines the way we do recreation in Baltimore, but sets the standard for the future of recreation. It is truly a rewarding feeling to bring this center to life in a community that is more than deserving.”
The 20-acre site was previously a Baltimore City landfill and incinerator facility. An older rec center with multipurpose rooms and a pool opened to residents in 1972, according to officials.
Construction on the new center, situated at the end of the Gwynns Falls Trail, began in 2020.
“This is about us showcasing that Recs & Parks will no longer be an agency that does not get the investment, especially on the capital side, that it deserves,” said Scott, noting the new center connects with both the Gwynns Falls and Middle Branch trails.
The mayor, who grew up in Park Heights, recalled the importance of having three recreation centers, Towanda, C.C. Jackson and James D. Gross, near his childhood home.
“I think everybody knows that I’m a Recs and Parks kid. ... It was opportunity for me to be somewhere and be safe with my friends and my family, and it meant so much to everyone in that generation,” Scott said. “And now that we’re able to continue these investments, we know what it means for communities, particularly like Cherry Hill where the Middle Branch facility is.”