Is building just east of town the best available option for a child care center? That’s the next question likely to be answered

    Although a myriad of numbers were discussed at a Tuesday evening meeting on the pursuit of a large child care center in Crookston, two numbers in particular will likely be the driving force behind the talks to come:

    • The first number – 10 to 12: That’s the number of phone calls Mayor Guy Martin said he received after news stories ran earlier this month in the wake of a tour of the former Sisters of St. Joseph Marywood Residence/Glenmore Recovery Center, a tour that seemed to indicate that the building a mile or so east of Crookston could not only be feasible as a child care center for 80 to 100 infants and children, it might be ideal.

    Tuesday in the conference room at Valley Technology Park, the mayor said the callers said they don’t want local taxpayer dollars spent outside the city. “It’s a legitimate concern,” Martin said.

    • The second number – 22: That’s the number of people the person who would operate the non-profit child care center (presumably at the former Marywood residence), Erika Leckie, said contacted her within a day of the same stories running in the local media, asking for them to be placed on her waiting list now for future placement of their child/children at the center, which would be called Regal Academy Child Care Center.

    “Those calls involved 32 kids,” Leckie said.

    “That’s 10 percent of your need (for licensed child care slots in Crookston and within a 20-mile radius) calling within one day,” added Joan Berntson, of Children’s First Finance in Bagley.

    Since the group toured the building east of town, Bernstron, at CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth’s request, crunched the latest data to determine the severity of the licensed child care shortage in and around Crookston.

    What she reported Tuesday was that Crookston itself is currently short 179 licensed child care slots. That’s up from a shortage of approximately 130 licensed slots that was mentioned over the past 18 months or so by stakeholders and officials looking to tackle the problem.

    When Bernston gathered data from a 20-mile radius around Crookston, including communities such as Beltrami, Climax, Euclid, Fisher, Mentor, Red Lake Falls and St. Hilaire, the shortage grows to 316 slots.

    In that 20-mile radius that includes Crookston, there are 34 licensed home child care providers and four child care centers. In Crookston alone, there are currently 22 licensed home child care providers and three of the four centers are here, the UMN Crookston Children’s Center, Sunrise Center at the Cathedral and a center at Tri-Valley’s Community Family Service Center.

    Leckie, who’s been a licensed home provider for several years, said the number of home providers has dipped significantly over the past six years or so. Leckie, who heads up the local child care association, said at least 40 providers used to show up at the group’s monthly meetings, but now around 16 consistently attend the meetings.
    
Community issue

    Bernston, Maureen Hams of Tri-Valley Opportunity Council’s Child Care Aware, and Missy Okeson of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation all indicated Tuesday that there’s a reason the licensed child care shortage in and around Crookston has emerged as the biggest issue local officials are tackling and determined to solve: Because it’s affecting the entire community.

    How?

    • Couples aren’t having children, or they’re having less than they originally planned to.

    • Both parents would like to work, but only one is in the workforce because the other parent is staying home with the kids because they can’t find child care.

    • People who’d like to move to Crookston and work here aren’t, in part because of the child care shortage.

    “Grandma’s not the first person who gets the excited call anymore when there’s a pregnancy,” Berntson said. “Child care providers get the first calls now as parents try to secure a spot.”

    Leckie said previously that she has people on her waiting list who aren’t even expecting a child yet.

    It’s become such an issue for the workforce, Hoiseth reiterated Tuesday, that several major employers in Crookston have indicated that they’re willing to support, in ways yet to be determined, efforts to reduce the child care shortage in the community.

    “Employers have a lot to say on this and they’ve been a powerful partner,” Hams added. “I’ve been involved in this a long, long time, but to have employers working on this…to have employers tell me that if we don’t do something about this they won’t be able to maintain their business, that’s really powerful, and it makes a difference in our communities and with our legislators, too.

    “It feels painful when people can’t find child care; it hurts,” Hams continued. “But I’m seeing a passion to do something like maybe I’ve never seen.”

Location debate

    Regal Academy Child Care Center would utilize an L-shaped space in the former Marywood Residence. Developer Jeff Evers, who’s also redeveloping the Fournet Building downtown, bought the building last year in what he said was an “amazing deal.” Soon after the purchase, Hoiseth said Evers put his building “on the table” for consideration as a child care center, and due diligence has been underway basically ever since.

    The tour earlier in February seemed to cement the former Marywood residence as a feasible location, especially, Evers said, considering that RiverView Health, when the building housed Glenmore, in the early 2000s did seven figures worth of remodeling in the building, and several hundred thousand more was spent after the tornado hit a few years ago. Evers said during the tour that the bulk of necessary renovations would involve plumbing and expanding some restroom facilities.

    Hoiseth said during the tour that his ballpark estimate was that it would take $200,000 to $250,000 to get the building ready for a child care center. Tuesday, after further consulting with Evers, he said he thinks the estimate is lower than he previously indicated.

    The affordability factor of putting the center in Evers’ building just east of town needs to be a major consideration in the location discussion, Hoiseth stressed.

    In response to the mayor on Tuesday, referring to the phone calls he’s received, saying that there “are a number of places in town we could put this center that (the city) council could support somehow,” and that the group “needs to look outside the box,” Hoiseth and others around the table said they’ve discussed and toured up to a dozen locations in the community and none are nearly as suitable as the building east on U.S. Highway 2. Martin asked for some details on the shortcomings, such as cost challenges or a lack of outdoor green space, at the in-town locations the group has explored, and Hams said she would get that information to him.

    “We’ve looked outside the box for more than a year now,” Hams said, “and we’ve found that (at the locations in town they’ve researched) it would take more money to remodel than we can ever imagine. We’ll keep looking, but someone has to tell us where to look. I thought we’d exhausted all the spots.”

    City Administrator Shannon Stassen added that constructing a new child care center was also looked into, but the costs, “well into the seven figures,” are not feasible.

    “We went from one end of this town to the other,” Hoiseth said. “But here’s my public callout: If anyone has a building they think might work for a child care center in Crookston, I want to know about it.”

    Bernston said a city hoping to be vibrant and vital well into the future with a hope of growing cannot have the child care shortage that Crookston does. “I would challenge the City to consider any option that helps solve this problem and not be insistent that it be located within the city,” she said. “I don’t think this group is saying it has to be (the former Marywood Residence), but I think the City needs to ask, ‘What’s best for our citizens?’ Crookston would still be getting a tax benefit from local people and people utilizing that center and coming into town.”

    “Our task is to be responsive to the City and the taxpayers, and we want to be responsive, but that shouldn’t close us off to looking (at the former Marywood Residence),” Hoiseth said. “The numbers we’re looking at speak for themselves and they have for a long time, so we need to do something for our families, our schools, our businesses and our community. People are not having children or they’re not working because of this.”

    Leckie, echoed by Hams, noted that an available building in town that has a capacity for a center with 30 or so kids simply is not nearly large enough to be feasible, whether it involves finances or its impact on the child care shortage.

    Bernstrom added that the shortage of infant slots is especially dire in and around Crookston, and the fact that Leckie is willing to have up to three rooms solely for infants is “huge.”

    “It’s fantastic that she is willing to do that,” Bernstrom said.

Finances, weather

    Most financial models show the non-profit Regal Child Care Academy would need some sort of financial subsidy. That could take the form of monthly or annual support, Hoiseth said. But, he reiterated Tuesday, although he has no concrete discussions to go on, it’s his feeling that the council has very little or no appetite for subsidizing a child care center on a monthly basis. What the council might be more interested in, he continued, is some “up front” assistance to help make a building become a child care center.

    “There are some people saying that if we have to do something to lift this off the ground, maybe we should look at that,” Hoiseth said. “What that exact number is remains to be seen, but the number at Marywood is small compared to other buildings we’ve investigated…very small. We have to answer to taxpayers, yes, but we also have to provide the lowest-cost option first and let the council say yea or nay on that. Sooner or later we are going to have to address this issue and it’s going to require a heavy lift.”

    Ward 5 Council Member Member Dale Stainbrook wondered what would happen if severe winter weather meant that parents couldn’t drop off their kids at a child care center a mile east of town, or pick them up after work. Saying he’s “on the fence” about the Marywood location as a child care center, Stainbrook acknowledged that it would “be a great building” but that he’s concerned about the impact of nasty winter weather on parents trying to drive to it and back.

    Leckie said she’d be required to have a comprehensive emergency plan in place in order to secure a license, and it would include contingencies in the event of inclement weather.

    “The people who called Erika knew the site that’s being considered,” Bernston noted.

    Kirsten Fagerlund of Polk County Public Health said the green space and nature-based opportunities at the Marywood site need to be a part of any discussion on its benefits. “From a wellness standpoint, and mental wellness and social and emotional skills, these are the types of spaces and natural places that are being widely embraced for children,” Fagerlund said. “I think we need to seek high-quality child care first, then work over the other hurdles. Weather in a rural community like ours is just a part of life.”