Hoiseth updates group at city hall session, says one center alone won’t solve shortage

    Told by CHEDA Executive Craig Hoiseth that it looks like it’ll cost around $30,000 to make the former Sisters of St. Joseph Marywood Residence/Glenmore Recovery Center just east of Crookston into a child care center by the end of this year, the CHEDA Board of Directors on Tuesday unanimously approved an allocation of CHEDA funds up to $50,000 to make it happen.

    The Tuesday morning development altered at least somewhat the agenda Tuesday evening, where a child care committee assembled for the most part by Mayor Guy Martin held its second meeting this month to discuss how to best tackle the Crookston child care shortage.

    “I had some things to say, but things changed today,” Martin said at the beginning of the evening gathering in the city hall council chambers. “The CHEDA Board met and graciously decided to fund a day care.”

    Martin said the primary reason he was encouraging the group to meet was to seek “broad community support” that he said is necessary for “endorsement and funding” of a child care center. “I don’t think we have that now,” the mayor added. “That’s why I set out to have these meetings, to get the constituents’ voices heard.”

CHEDA Board endorsement

    At the CHEDA Board meeting, board member Tom Vedbraaten made the motion and board member Steve Erickson seconded the motion. Both are also Crookston City Council members. The thinking among board members is that the funds will come from the additional allocation of $350,000 from the City to CHEDA that the council previously approved as part of its 2019 budget to be invested strategically by CHEDA in various initiatives that boost things like economic development, housing, workforce or downtown. The additional City funding came from reserves.

    Most of the necessary renovations at what would be a non-profit center known as Regal Academy Child Care Center involve plumbing, Hoiseth said. Specifically, restrooms designed for adults need to be redesigned for children. The building as a whole underwent a significant renovation in the early 2000s, and had other repairs and remodeling done after it sustained tornado damage a few years ago.

    Developer Jeff Evers, who also owns and is renovating the Fournet building in downtown Crookston, bought the building east of Crookston on U.S. Highway 2 last year at a bargain price. For some time he’s been working with Hoiseth and an advisory board of child care experts and stakeholders on the potential for converting a large portion of the building into a child care center that could house 50 to 80 infants, toddlers and children and, in the process, put a dent in the local shortage of licensed child care slots that has repeatedly been labeled a crisis.

    During a tour of the facility last winter, Hoiseth estimated it would cost around $250,000 to make the necessary renovations, but through continued consultations with Evers, the number has been significantly whittled down.

    Although the non-profit’s yet-to-be-formed board of directors would ultimately make the decision on who to hire to run Regal Academy, local child care provider Erika Leckie has had a prominent role during the process that’s led up to this point, and, working with her husband, Scott, they have applied for non-profit status through the Internal Revenue Service.

    Hoiseth said the initial child care license application would likely be for up to 80 children, with 20 of them being infants.

    “You compare (Evers’ building) to all the other places looked at…we keep hearing crisis, crisis, crisis,” Vedbraaten said. “This is probably the cheapest way to go.

    “We had all of these strategy sessions and child care is always number one on the list,” Vedbraaten said later. “We gotta do something, and these other buildings cost a lot of money.”

    Hoiseth said he believes it’s Evers’ plan to offer a five-year lease to Regal Academy.

    Later, at the gathering at city hall, Hoiseth stressed that if and when Regal Academy opens, the work to reduce the child care shortage is not over.

    “We’re not under any illusions that this is a slam dunk or an easy fix,” he said. “But this problem that people have called a crisis has been a problem in this community for many years. This is A solution, but it’s not THE solution. We’re not finished with the child care problem by opening one child care center. We need more home day cares, we maybe need another center.”

    Although he continues to stress that he has nothing in writing because the child care center is not yet official, Hoiseth reiterated Tuesday that many large employers in Crookston and some smaller ones, too – many of which continually struggle to not just grow but maintain their workforce because of the lack of available child care – have verbally indicated a strong interest in helping the center financially by contributing to rent and utility bills.

    “We’re getting really good commitment, and I can say with good assurance that the business community of Crookston will pay for the operating costs of the facility,” Hoiseth said. “They see such a need for child care. …If the business community pays for the lights and heat, that’s a big step forward as far as sustainability.

    “I’m confident at their word that they understand their issue and what’s going on,” he continued. “This hasn’t been a flippant discussion (with local businesses), it’s been very methodical.”

    Hoiseth said he also updated the Crookston Township Board, where the child care center would be located, and they agreed to a financial contribution over five years totaling $7,000.

    The hope is that any ongoing subsidies from the City or CHEDA won’t be necessary, mostly because, as Erickson, Vedbraaten and Hoiseth reiterated Tuesday, there doesn’t appear to be an appetite from the CHEDA Board or council to provide continuing financial support of any kind to the center.

    “Sustainability should come from the business itself,” Hoiseth said. “A well-run business with rent being taken care by someone else, that’s as good a deal as you can get.”

    He added that grants and other potential sources of funding continue to be pursued and will be pursued in the future, adding that’s a primary reason non-profit status is being sought, because it opens more doors for a variety of potential funders compared to a for-profit venture.
Staffing challenge

    While stressing that existing local child care centers understand the need to ease the shortage and that they’re not against a larger center opening, Sue Murphy, director of Sunrise Center at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, predicted, as she did during a similar discussion earlier this month, that Regal Child Care Center will have a very hard time filling its staffing needs. Murphy said she constantly struggles to get any qualified applicants at all when she has openings, and said the Children’s Center at the University of Minnesota Crookston routinely has a hard time attracting qualified job applicants.

    “Staffing is huge with centers, and you’re looking at a minimum of 13 or even up to 30 (at Regal Academy), when I can barely get one or two,” Murphy said. “You can get the kids, you have the facility, but where you’re going to get the staff, that’s going to be your biggest hurdle.

    “I’ve tried it all. I’ve advertised in every way and everywhere,” she continued. “People don’t go into early childhood anymore. It’s a very high-stress job with low pay. …Realistically, where are you going to get all of that staff, teacher-qualified? That’s a big hole to dig out of.”

    Hoiseth that would likely be one of the first major issues for the non-profit’s board to wrestle with. “We realize there’s a vacuum, a void,” he said. “The person we’re talking about running this, she’s definitely aware of the issues and the staffing requirements.”

    Tuesday evening at city hall, Hoiseth added that after his board meeting earlier that day, he spent much of his day trying to pursue initiatives that might boost child care providers’ efforts to find quality staff by possibly helping people, financially, to get the training they need. Hoiseth said he consulted with the economic development authority in Bemidji on potential efforts. “We’re working to find ways for (child care) centers to access the workforce pool,” he said.