St. Paulites are proud of their neighborhoods, but still it was impressive when 150 people turned out on a chilly evening late last month to express concern about their East Side recreation center going private.

By the time it was over, neighbors learned that they had won a six-month reprieve starting Jan. 1 before the Conway center can be turned over to a private partner -- time enough, they hope, to have their wishes for the center's future heard and heeded.

The privatization debate going on at Conway -- and also at the McDonough rec center in St. Paul's North End -- is just the latest in a series stretching back to 2007, when the city began leasing rec centers to private partners to help close budget gaps left by dwindling state aid and a shrinking economy.

Neighbors remain skeptical about how rec centers are chosen for privatization, and whether favorite activities and services will still be offered and affordable once the center is operated by a private partner.

"In a community with rising needs, the last thing we need is divestment of public funds," said the Rev. Chris Duckworth, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, at the Conway community meeting. "Find the cuts somewhere else. Ours doesn't need to be cut any further."

Residents learned in October that the Conway and McDonough centers were scheduled to be privatized at the end of the year for an annual savings to the city of $394,000. The moves would eliminate 6 1/2 full-time positions through attrition.

After criticism that the community wasn't consulted, Mayor Chris Coleman and the City Council agreed to extend funding for both centers through June. That provided some reassurance to Betsy Leach, the district council's director.

"We need to make sure the [Conway] rec center remains accessible to all the residents in the district, seniors as well as kids ... and not just to paying customers," she said.

McDonough representatives also protested. Jeff Martens of the District 6 Planning Council wrote city leaders that the North End already had seen two centers closed and another privatized, and that neighbors wanted to have a say in McDonough's future.

"McDonough Recreation Center is housed within one of the largest public housing sites in the city," Martens wrote. "To continually propose that centers be repurposed is not ensuring our youth have quality programming and safe places to be."

Skeptical neighbors

There are 41 rec centers in St. Paul, the same number as five years ago. But the city now operates only 25 of them. Two centers are run by the Twin Cities Boys & Girls Clubs, and 14 others are leased to private groups.

St. Paul in recent years has razed three rec centers in all, one on the East Side in addition to the two North End centers, and replaced them with restroom facilities to support outside play and field areas.

A comprehensive plan issued by the Parks Department in 2010 said that "fewer but better" buildings were needed to make the city's recreation system "economically sustainable and more relevant." It claimed that St. Paul until recently had more rec centers per capita than any other major U.S. city.

Privatization has helped St. Paul rein in spending on parks. While general fund spending on parks has grown by 7.7 percent since 2007, that's a lower rate than for other large city departments. The total 2013 parks budget is expected to be $56.9 million.

Coleman spokesman Joe Campbell said that forming rec center partnerships with private entities "can provide a really great service to the community that also allows us to meet some really tough budgets."

Different partnerships

St. Paul rec centers run by private groups have a variety of partners. For example, Brunette Boxing and Twin City Barbell operate an East Side center, and the St. Paul school district runs two on the East Side and one in Highland Park. Augsburg College runs a West Side center offering Head Start classes.

One concern is that specialized centers don't offer the broad assortment of activities and equipment available at most rec centers.

Parks Director Mike Hahm said private partners typically hire staffers and pay utility and maintenance costs to operate the centers. The city retains ownership of the property.

While most partnerships have been successful, a few have had to be dissolved, Hahm said. "We work with the community to arrive at the best solution," he said.

Conway and McDonough were selected as candidates for privatization next year because they're similar to other sites that have enjoyed successful partnerships, he said. Others are skeptical.

In a recent letter to city leaders, Leach suggested Conway is being privatized, in part, because the community has a high percentage of low-income and minority residents.

Hahm denied that race and poverty are factors. Proximity to other centers can be a consideration, he said, as well as the number of participants.

He said privatization is not meant as a prelude to the eventual closing of a rec center. "Pursuing a service partnership is driven by the motivation to avoid closing the facility," he said.

Council President Kathy Lantry, who represents the Conway neighborhood and played at the rec center as a kid, said she plans on regular meetings between parks and community leaders to determine the rec center's future.

Lantry pointed out the East Side already is served by several of the city's newer rec centers. On the other hand, she's not convinced St. Paul will realize the expected savings by privatizing Conway.

"In the end, I want to come out of this with a proposal for what it will look like going forward," she said.

So do Conway's neighbors. Chris Dollar-Simmons, a coach and Booster Club leader, told city officials at last month's community meeting: "If you're looking for a partner, look at these people. Because they care."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035