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Child care shortage, solution, remains

ABOVE: Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center’s new facility in Fairmont includes additional space for Building Blocks Learning Center and Child Care. However, as seen below, the space was never completed due to rising construction costs.

FAIRMONT– The childcare shortage in the county has been a hot topic for a number of years and while ideas have been tossed around and some groups have started programs, a shortage of providers and slots in child care centers has remained. However, a solution is within reach at Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center in Fairmont where there’s space for an additional 75 child care spots.

In 2017, when Building Blocks Learning Center and Child Care lost its rental site, Lakeview stepped up and allowed the child care center to move into its building.

When Lakeview announced plans to expand several years ago, including a larger space for Building Blocks was part of the original plans.

Lakeview Administrator Deb Barnes said that Lakeview has already put $1.25 million into the space.

While that amount should have finished it, due to construction costs rising during the Covid-19 pandemic, the price greatly increased beyond what was budgeted for. The concrete has been poured and the framing is up for the walls. New windows were also installed.

But the space has sat unfinished.

Building Blocks currently is full at caring for 48 children. That’s the number Director Shea Ripley said they’re comfortable with. However, as their license allows for 125, they have the ability and the space to fit 75 more. They just need the support and the funds to complete it.

Meanwhile, the Proper Project, a local child care program funded by The Schmeeckle Foundation, is working to support in-home child care providers in the county. Ripley believes there should be more support for child care centers as well.

“I 100 precent support in-homes. There’s a lot of kids I’ve referred to in-homes. Some thrive in in-home settings, some thrive in center settings. I feel like there should be funding for both and parents should have a choice,” Ripley said.

She noted that right now in Martin County, space is filled at both in-home child care locations and at Building Blocks, which is the only child care center in the county.

That’s not surprising considering a study was done several years ago that identified a need for 170 additional child care slots in Martin County.

“We literally have, with no exaggeration, at least two or three phone calls per day looking for care,” Ripley said.

She said Human Services has a list of providers who Ripley has called several times and everyone is full.

“You walk past this shell of a daycare center and it’s so within reach. It would add 75 spots immediately, with staff of course,” Ripley said of the space within Lakeview’s addition.

Speaking of the idea behind the Prosper Project, Barnes said, “I think it’s wonderful and in the future there will be more home daycare providers hopefully, but that doesn’t solve the problem right now. And we have an answer right now for 75 kids.”

Minnesota Business Vitality Council recently released a child care sprint report, which showed different statistics, trends and programs throughout the state. Lakeview was mentioned in the report for the role it’s played in helping to provide child care.

While the 38 page report is available to view on the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) site, at mn.gov/DEED, one finding Ripley pointed out was that the report showed that in Minnesota, 2,700 family child care providers have closed between 2013 and 2019. During that same time period, centers have grown by 184.

“Lakeview has already stepped up,” Ripley said.

But Barnes said they need other people to step up. She said they have been brainstorming different ideas to get the space finished.

“We’re looking at how to solve this problem. We could go into some of our Foundation money and just do it,” she said.

They’re also looking at possibly collaborating with another group in town.

Barnes said that some representatives from the YMCA have come in and were very interested in the space and potentially using it for after-school programs, which Building Blocks currently doesn’t have.

Barnes said they’ve also considered eliminating some of the items they originally wanted in order to bring the cost down. For example, she said they had selected special wallpaper recommended for a child care center, but could go with simpler paper for a cheaper cost.

“We’re like, ‘give us walls and floors and we can make it work,'” Ripley said with a laugh.

Not only is there the issue of how to get the funds, but who to get the funds from. Barnes said they’ve run into issues because some groups are interested in donating, but Building Blocks is considered for-profit and they’ve been told certain groups only donate to non-profits. Barnes said this has closed a few doors.

“We are in the process of working with Shea to bring Building Blocks under our non-profit umbrella,” Barnes said.

Ripley pointed out that Building Blocks is in a lease with Lakeview and rents out its current space and that would be true in the new space as well.

“The fact that we’re for-profit shouldn’t make a difference because we’re a renter the same as if it was a non-profit coming in to rent,” Ripley said.

Barnes said that a benefit to bringing Building Blocks under their umbrella is that it will allow the employees to come onto their insurance, which would help attract workers there. Currently Building Blocks has 13 full-time staff and three part-time, but more would be needed with the new space.

The topic of employees is another one that comes into play in a major way when speaking of the childcare shortage.

“The workforce shortage is directly tied to the childcare shortage and I feel like that’s something that’s overlooked. We’re not going to attract workforce if they don’t have anywhere for their kids to go,” Ripley said.

“Certainly we benefit, as do all employers from a place where employees can take their children and be available to work. It benefits all employers in town not just us,” Barnes added.

Ripley stressed that while they wait for the project to be finished, Building Blocks is doing fine in its current space, but with the new space, they’ll be able to double the capacity.

“There’s an immediate need and there’s an immediate answer,” Barnes said.

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