Erika and Scott Leckie and a team of stakeholders are working on a plan that could result in a child care center for as many as 80 to 100 children

    After discussions and behind-the-scenes due diligence for at least the past year, efforts are ramping up that could result in a child care center being housed at the former Sisters of St. Joseph Marywood Residence/Glenmore Recovery Center just east of Crookston on U.S. Highway 2, a center that could have the capacity for as many as 100 children.

    A group of people who have been putting a project together, in addition to other stakeholders, toured the facility Tuesday evening, led by developer Jeff Evers, who bought the building last year, CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth, and Erika Leckie, a longtime home daycare provider in Crookston who would operate what would be known as Regal Academy Child Care Center.

    “We could have 60 kids, 80 kids, maybe 100, depending on what the state thinks and what the need is,” Leckie said, adding that plans could include up to three infant rooms, each of which could potentially be home to as many as eight infants.

    The child care center would be a non-profit entity. Erika Leckie’s husband, Scott Leckie, is currently finalizing all of the paperwork necessary to make the center’s non-profit status official. He said the bylaws should be finalized by next week, and a board of directors is taking shape.

    “We’ve been meeting a year or more and it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, but when Jeff took over ownership of the building, it presented an opportunity,” Hoiseth said. He acknowledged that locating a child care center of such a scope outside the city limits might not seem ideal, but he added that it doesn’t mean the opportunity at the large building and expansive property shouldn’t be seriously explored. At one time in its past, a portion of the Marywood Residence was in fact a child care center, but not of the scope being envisioned by the Leckies and their team.

    Tuesday’s tour covered essentially an “L” shaped area of the building on the main and lower levels that would be utilized as Regal Academy Child Care Center. The upper floor was not toured and would not be part of the center.

    Some interior walls would likely have to be knocked down and some new walls might have to be added. Expanded bathroom facilities would also be needed and money would have to be spent on various security measures at the main entrance – which would likely be in the rear – and elsewhere to make it no mistake that the “compartmentalized” center stands alone in the building, especially if any spaces not utilized by the child care center are rented from Evers by tenants in the future.

    But, despite the obvious expenses necessary to make portions of the building a child care center, Evers stressed that the building itself is in good shape, it’s already home to two functioning elevators, a fire suppression system and a good boiler, and it has had major dollars invested in it in recent years. It had a seven-figure renovation in the early 2000s, he said, and when the tornado rolled through Crookston a few years ago, another $800,000 was spent on repairs and remodeling.

    “So lots of the building-out costs have already been taken care of,” Evers said. “Plus, I got such a great deal on the purchase, that can only help going forward as far as costs per square foot.”

    The building is equipped with a full commercial kitchen. It’s more than what the child care center needs, Leckie said, and if any future tenants move into other portions of the building they would have the option of sharing the kitchen, as long as all of the necessary, required precautions are made to keep the kitchen’s child care center operations separate and secure from any other tenants’ uses.

    While touring the kitchen Tuesday evening, Joan Berntson, of First Children’s Finance in Bagley, noted that a non-profit child care center would be eligible for a significantly more advantageous food reimbursement rate than a for-profit center.

    “There are way more advantages for you as a non-profit, so that’s good,” Berntson said.
    
The money

    Hoiseth guessed that it might take $200,000 to $250,000 in renovations to make Regal Child Care Center a reality at the facility. Although it would be a non-profit, having all of those infants – which don’t generate the revenue that toddlers and older children do – would make balancing the budget a challenge once it’s operational, he acknowledged, so that would make some level of outside financial support likely necessary.

    So where would that come from and how would such support look? CHEDA has an additional $350,000 in its 2019 budget after the Crookston City Council approved an additional allocation of City funds that Hoiseth could invest strategically, but Hoiseth said he doesn’t know if the council would simply ask him to write a check, or if CHEDA would provide some support, in addition to some level of City support. He said it’s his gut feeling that the council might have a better appetite for an up-front investment that helps make the necessary renovations a reality, rather than an ongoing subsidy to help with the child care center’s operational budget.

    Then there are Crookston’s major employers, who have said for some time that the ongoing child care shortage in Crookston and the area is hindering their ability to grow their workforce, much less maintain it as its current level. Hoiseth reiterated Tuesday that several big employers in Crookston have said they’d be willing to support in some way efforts to ease the local child care shortage.

    “Having a great partner like Jeff, maybe some money is put toward the capital expense so you avoid starting out with such a huge debt service. That would be a preferable model versus getting into an ongoing subsidy,” Hoiseth explained. “The City might be willing to help on that front, but I don’t know at what level and I don’t know what the appetite for that is. There might be a more enthusiastic willingness to help jump-start things up front and find the sweet spot that makes sense. Does this facility work? What will it take to make it work? And, do we have the financial capability?”

Is it a crisis?

    The group of stakeholders will meet again in the coming weeks, and in the meantime Hoiseth said the primary assignment is to get updated, detailed data on just how many additional licensed child care slots Crookston needs.

    “Is it a crisis? An actual crisis?” Hoiseth said. “Or is it a serious need? A big need? When we get together next, we’re going to need some hard data to digest.

    “We need to find out how full or not full our current providers are, we need to find out who’s going to continue being in business and who’s going to maybe retire or drop off the landscape,” he continued. “We don’t want to build it and hope they come, we want to build it knowing the response will be substantial.”

    Berntson, whose agency helps child care providers in a 12-county region with the business side of their operations in addition to providing expertise on other related topics, said that she would get to work on providing some updated child care shortage numbers in Crookston and within a 15-mile radius. Maureen Hams from Tri-Valley Opportunity Council will also be an expert resource on tabulating updated numbers, Leckie added.

    Leckie, who’s the current president of the local child care association, said, for her anecdotally at least, the need is clear. She said she currently has 10 children at her home daycare, and she’s whittled her waiting list of 30 down to 13. Leckie noted that she has two families that have asked to be placed on her waiting list, and they don’t even have children yet and aren’t expecting a child at this time, either. “I think I’m far from alone in dealing with that kind of demand,” Leckie said.

    While her husband, Scott, has been working on securing non-profit status for Regal Academy Child Care Center, Erika Leckie, Hoiseth said, has been “doing all kinds of paperwork for months.”

    “It’s basically complete except for the part where you have to have a building, and then we’d need to put our emergency plan together and things like that,” she explained. “No one from St. Paul will come up until the building is set up, and at that point they’re inspecting everything and pretty much counting the toys and things like that.”

    “Obviously, we have a lot to do before we get to that point,” Hoiseth added. “But we think we’re there, we think this building would suffice.”