Child care shortage addressed

FAIRMONT — The shortage of child care slots in Fairmont and Martin County and the impact it has on business growth was in the spotlight Thursday as possible solutions to the issue were unveiled.

Heidi Hagel Braid, chief program officer at the national non-profit First Children’s Finance, delivered a summary of past, present and future action to build the supply of quality child care to support the local economy.

First Children’s Finance provides financing, training and business development assistance to child care businesses, as well as consulting and planning assistance to government agencies, intermediaries and regional child care organizations. The organization has been working with a local core team of stakeholders, led by Linsey Preuss, Fairmont economic development supervisor, for the past 14 months.

During that time, the core team used surveys, meetings and focus groups to learn about the struggles in finding child care and what employers were experiencing. Throughout Martin County, there is a shortage of 172 child care slots, 81 of those in Fairmont. Some communities in the county have no child care providers.

A shortage of child care slots creates a wide-ranging impact, Hagel Braid said. Young families are reluctant to move to an area with a lack of child care. Parents miss work or even quit a job if they have no place to take their children. Without adequate quality employees, businesses might not be able to expand, or in the worst case, be forced to close.

“It is not just a Fairmont that has this issue,” said Michelle Rosen, principal at Fairmont Elementary School and a member of the core team.

Rosen said the team’s research indicated that in the last 12 months, 40 percent of the respondents quit a job or declined employment based on child care needs, and 48 percent were absent from work due to lack of child care.

More than half those surveyed indicated their decision to have a child was based on their ability to find child care for an infant, Preuss said. Some even called child care providers to see when an infant opening would be available before determining when — or if — to have a child.

“Wow. Just wow,” Preuss said.

The team developed four goals to address the child care challenges and plan to implement action over the next 18 months.

The first goal, to engage the private sector, would involve working with three employers who feel lack of child care is affecting their ability to hire quality employees, thereby stifling the opportunity to grow and expand.

The second goal is to renovate a portion of the Southern Minnesota Education Campus, the former Central School on Park Street, into child care spots or “pods.”

Creating a $150,000 fund for current and new child care providers is the team’s third goal. The fund would be used to help new providers start their business, and help them and existing providers grow and increase the quality of child care in the area.

The team hopes to complete its final goal in the next six months, which is to secure sponsorship for professional development training in Fairmont for all child care programs.

Shea Ripley, co-owner of Building Blocks, told of her child care business being forced to move 75 children out of the old Lincoln School when they lost their lease and finding “a really perfect fit” when they was relocated to Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center.

“The collaboration has been amazing for us,” she said, crediting Preuss for coming up with idea. “The children have formed these really important bonds with the residents.”

“It has really enriched the lives of our residents,” said Mae DeWar-Aust, foundation director at Lakeview.

Lakeview’s proposed new building will include a larger space for Building Blocks, including a fenced outdoor play area. This will enable the child care center to add 49 additional slots, including 16 highly-sought infant slots.

But, Ripley said, “Trying to get my staff paid what they are worth” remains a challenge.

“That is definitely the most difficult part,” she said.

Hagel Braid said she has six or seven different models for any business interested in providing some kind of child care support for employees. Various ways to provide the support include on-site child care, furnishing no-cost or low-cost space to a child care provider, contributing to a fund that incentivizes new child care entrepreneurs or supporting existing child care businesses by underwriting professional development costs they incur.

“We are not talking about millions of dollars here,” Hagel Braid said. “We are talking about a few thousand. Heck, we give that much to the baseball team sometimes.”

For more information, contact Preuss at (507) 238-3925 or email her at lpreuss@fairmont.org.

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