At the tail-end of a Baltimore summer marked by occasional scorching heat, several shuttered swimming pools and kids sneaking into locked facilities, City Council members urged parks officials to ensure that repairs don’t interrupt swim season next year.

Officials from Baltimore City Recreation and Parks gathered Wednesday before City Council for questioning over closures at three popular spots this summer: Clifton Park’s pool experienced sporadic maintenance issues; Cherry Hill’s outdoor pool remains under renovation; and persistent flooding overwhelmed Patterson Park’s pool in early July, preventing it from opening. Officials with the parks department had initially intended for the 70-year-old Patterson Park pool to be closed for renovations through the entirety of the summer, but they backtracked temporarily after Councilman Zeke Cohen and community members rallied to keep it open.

“In the hottest summer on record, every single child in Baltimore deserves to swim in their neighborhood public pool. That is the very least that our city government can do. And this summer, we fell short,” Cohen said in opening remarks at Wednesday’s hearing. Cohen, who is campaigning for City Council president and whose district includes Patterson Park, commended Mayor Brandon Scott for his administration’s attention to parks, but urged the city to resolve communication and purchasing problems to make sure renovations don’t impede pool offerings next summer.

Baltimore City Councilmen Mark Conway, left, and Zeke Cohen listen to testimony from Colin Thompson, 16, during a hearing with members of the Baltimore City Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee inside Baltimore City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 23. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In many cases, pools have a dire need for repairs that built up over a half-century of deferred maintenance, parks Director Reginald Moore told council members. In the case of Patterson Park, Moore said his department spent more than $100,000 on Band-Aid measures in an attempt to get the pool open before finally opting for full renovations after a third flood took out the pump room.

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No one wants to see pools closed in the summer, “but there are realities,” said Moore. “Until we continue to turn these systems over and improve these systems, there is a greater chance that from summer to summer we are going to lose pools” to mechanical failures and other unexpected maintenance issues, he said.

Rec and Parks first put out a bid for renovation of Patterson Park in September of 2022, Moore said, but a contract was not awarded until April of this year. Cohen pointed to failures in the city’s procurement process that he said could have avoided this summer’s closure. The Southeast Baltimore councilman cited a March email from the parks department showing that the city had received no responses to its initial bid for Patterson renovation. Had work begun on the original timeline, Patterson’s pool would have been finished in time for this summer, the message said.

Children play in the sprinklers during the Patterson Park Splash Pad Pop Up Launch, in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Sixteen of the 23 pools in Baltimore’s system have been open this summer, Moore said. Six of the shuttered facilities are either under renovation or currently have contracts out to bid. Moore said the renovated Patterson Park pool is expected to open for the 2024 summer, though he declined to set a specific date and cautioned that construction could unearth unanticipated challenges.

Lake Clifton’s pool, meanwhile, reopened following mechanical failures and is expected to remain open the rest of the season. Cherry Hill Splash, that neighborhood’s outdoor pool, remains under renovation, but officials noted the new Middle Branch recreation center provides an indoor pool for the area.

Efforts to improve and expand recreation facilities has been a fixture of Mayor Brandon Scott’s tenure. Getting kids to pools, in part through weekly pool parties, was also a key component in his response to surging teen gun violence this summer. At Wednesday’s hearing, Scott administration officials touted the largest investment in recreation facilities the city has seen in decades. The city has budgeted more than $150 million for parks and recreation facilities in the last three fiscal years, mayor’s office representative Nina Themelis told the council Wednesday, including for several pool renovations.

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But the pool closures became a flashpoint of a sweltering summer in Baltimore. Often, kids snuck through fences to beat the heat in closed pools. A tweet by WBAL News Radio showing aerial footage of several youths swimming in the closed Patterson Park pool went viral in July, setting off a firestorm over the station’s “biased” portrayal of the Black kids. Earlier in the summer, a 16-year-old boy nearly drowned in Roosevelt Park Pool in Hampden during the facility’s off hours. He later died of injuries from the incident.

Scott, however, has stood by decisions to pursue renovations at some pools in the heat of the summer. Rather than “continuing to kick the can down the road with temporary fixes,” the mayor said in a July press conference following the viral Patterson Park video, he has instead prioritized investments in “world-class facilities.”

Funding for improvements to recreation facilities, including pools, more than tripled last fiscal year, charts shared by Rec and Parks officials showed Wednesday. That’s largely thanks to the city’s influx in federal pandemic aid. Scott has pledged $41 million of the city’s COVID-19 windfall to parks, $10 million of which is earmarked for improvements at three pools: Coldstream, Greater Model and Towanda. The department does not have projected completion dates for those three projects, they said Wednesday.

As an alternative to Patterson Park’s pool, Councilman Cohen received special Board of Estimates approval to solicit private funds for a “pop-up” splash pad at Patterson Park. It debuted Wednesday afternoon, with dozens of kids and families coming out to play in sprinklers next to the drained Patterson pool.

Valerie, 20 months runs from sprinklers during the Patterson Park Splash Pad Pop Up Launch, in Baltimore, Wednesday, August 23, 2023.
Valerie, 20 months, runs through sprinklers during the Patterson Park Splash Pad Pop Up Launch, in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)
Children play in the sprinklers during the Patterson Park Splash Pad Pop Up Launch, in Baltimore, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Maria Blanca, a mother who lives near the park, said the pool’s closure this summer was frustrating for many in the neighborhood. Unlike some other families, the Blancas have a car and could drive to other public pools in town. But “it’s hit or miss,” she said. “Do you want to drive all the way to Druid Hill,” she asked, with kids dressed up in bathing suits and crying, only to find that it’s full when you arrive?

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Speaking at the gathering, East Baltimore Councilman Antonio Glover thanked community members for coming out. “Guess what?” he said. “We’re going to make sure Baltimore City pools never go through this situation again.”

This story has been updated to clarify the pool in Patterson Park did not open this summer.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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