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Community leaders say cutting rec center hours will negatively impact Denver youth

Denver's mayor says the reduced hours are needed to help the city pay for migrant support
Denver hours
Posted at 6:25 PM, Feb 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-14 20:25:23-05

DENVER — Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s decision to reduce hours at city recreation centers is not going over well with community leaders.

The mayor said the reduction is needed to help the city deal with the ongoing migrant crisis. But some are worried the move will have negative consequences for Denver’s youth.

In January, Johnston asked every city department to look at potential cuts to help the city address the migrant crisis. The mayor said the city could spend up to $180 million supporting migrants this year.

“Everything is on the table for us,” Johnston said. “We'll have to look at how we continue to reduce the number of people that we serve. We'll have to look at what changes we make to the types of services we provide.”

On Friday, Johnston announced the city had identified about $5 million in cuts. Much of that is coming from the Parks and Recreation Department.

All 30 rec centers in Denver will reduce their hours beginning Feb. 20. Regional rec centers, which are currently open seven days a week, will now only open for six days. Summer programming will be reduced by 25 percent.

“We have one rec center in southeast Denver. If you cut hours, that's a tremendous impact on our community,” said Denver City Councilwoman Diana Romero Campbell, who represents District 4.

Romero Campbell said the reduced hours will have a ripple effect on youth.

“It's not only those who are attending rec centers that will be impacted, but it's also our young people who this is their first job. This is a way for them to enter into the workforce,” said Romero Campbell.

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Community leader Lisa Calderon said rec centers play an important part in keeping kids out of trouble.

“Funding our parks and rec departments is a public safety strategy," said Calderon. “We also know that when kids have things to do that are productive, then they don't get into other activities later on that we then pay for through the court system.”

Romero Campbell shared her concerns directly with the mayor in a meeting on Tuesday. Johnston said the city would do everything it could to limit the impact of the cuts.

“It is not easy to take this chunk of services away and not have an impact,” said Johnston. “But we are going to work very proactively on what are the ways in which we can think about how to activate and support communities and groups of young people that are most likely to need those services or times.”

Romero Campbell said she expects community groups and nonprofits will have to step up to help fill the gap, but she doesn’t understand why rec center hours are being cut.

“I would just like to find other ways that we can cut back as a city and not have it impact our young people,” said Romero Campbell.

Calderon, who ran for mayor in 2023, believes the cuts could have been handled better.

“We are basically going off a fiscal cliff and there are things that we need to do to prepare for that. Having a press conference and all of a sudden telling us about all of these services that will be cut did not give us adequate time to prepare in our neighborhoods for what is coming,” said Calderon. “I think that unnecessarily created a lot of confusion and angst around the cuts that are coming that all of us are going to have to bear.”

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Romero Campbell and others have also wondered why the Parks and Rec cuts were announced first.

“I think the team realized they want to get a head start on this rather than waiting to take bigger cuts later,” Johnston said.

Jolon Clark, director of Denver Parks and Rec and a former city councilman, said his department began having conversations early.

“It was really our effort, and we appreciate the mayor's office and Department of Finance allowing us to kind of have that conversation early. And you know, because every day that we wait, that cut has to be deeper when it comes to these,” Clark said.

Johnston said more cuts would be announced in the days and weeks ahead. He also hinted that more cuts would be coming to Parks and Rec.

Johnston blamed Republicans in Congress for failing to pass a bill that would have provided Denver with federal funding to help care for migrants. The bipartisan bill would have also expanded work authorizations so they would be able to care for themselves.

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