Self Centered 

Memphis City Council considers plan to outsource community centers to local nonprofits.

When the city of Memphis planned to close four community centers in 2008, nonprofit Memphis Athletic Ministries took over those operations. Now at least one councilperson thinks that, given the group's success, the idea should be expanded.

Councilman Jim Strickland recently proposed that the city accept applications from nonprofits to run some or all of the city's 24 additional centers.

"They have so many more resources than we as a city have," says Strickland. "The public gets the same or better service, and the city saves a lot of money."

Under Strickland's proposal, applications would be accepted both from already existing nonprofits and from new groups hoping to focus on the centers alone. While those leaders will still report to the city's parks director, Strickland hopes that the focus each organization can give to its particular center will spark ideas for new programs and more dedicated services.

Strickland's optimism isn't shared by all members of the community, however. Potential opponents have voiced several concerns, among them that services could become more expensive.

Memphis Athletic Ministries also has a special emphasis on youth programming, which has made some senior citizens worry they won't receive the same attention.

"As far as I can tell, all the 'cons' come from misinformation," Strickland says, pointing out that these nonprofits will enter into a legal agreement with the city that sets out certain terms. "When we issue the request for proposals," he says, "we can require that they provide the same services at the same price as the city would."

Some also fear that the resolution ultimately will lead to community centers closed or abandoned, but Strickland emphasizes that the point is to improve center services.

"We won't be closing any centers," he says. "If a center goes without a bid from a nonprofit, it will remain in operation as usual."

Since nonprofits can apply for grant money from outside sources, Strickland predicts better facilities and more extensive programming.

"If a nonprofit can double or triple the staffing, provide the same services for young and old, and save the city $150,000," Strickland says, "everybody wins."

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