CHEDA Board will discuss specific numbers in May
When his board of directors next meets in May, CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth will have some specific numbers, cost projections and potential one-time/up-front and/or ongoing financial contributions from CHEDA, the City of Crookston and the local business community that would help make a non-profit child care center for 60 children and 20 infants at a suitable building about a mile east of town a reality.
That’s how the latest child care center discussion ended at Tuesday’s CHEDA Board meeting, as more people seated around the Valley Technology Park conference room table seemed to come to the realization that if Crookston is going to put a dent in a child care shortage that is being widely labeled a crisis, the only feasible location is the former Sisters of St. Joseph Marywood Residence/Glenmore Recovery Center building east of Crookston on U.S. Highway 2 that developer Jeff Evers purchased a couple years ago.
“We had a list of around 18 buildings (within city limits) and they were all looked at, and none even came close to passing the test or they needed a huge investment,” Ward 1 City Council Member Jake Fee said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Jeff has been fantastic to work with, and we would not be at this point with that facility if he had not bought it,” Hoiseth added.
Current Crookston child care provider Erika Leckie, who has previous experience running a larger center, is working with her husband, Scott Leckie, to make “Regal Academy Child Care Center” a reality at the building east of town. They’ve applied for 501(c)(3) non-profit status and are awaiting word from the government.
The Leckies, Hoiseth, City Administrator Shannon Stassen and a local committee of child care stakeholders and experts have been working for more than a year on the feasibility of Evers’ building as a child care center. Evers has said the cost to make an L-shaped space in the building a child care center would be manageable, considering that the building underwent a major renovation in the early 2000s and received other improvements when it sustained tornado damage a few years ago. It already has a full commercial kitchen. The bulk of the expense, Evers has said, would involve plumbing work.
When some concerns arose in the community over the building’s location outside of Crookston after the local media followed along on a tour of the building this past winter, the committee made it known it continued to be willing to research potentially suitable sites within city limits.
“We put out a public plea for other building opportunities, and they haven’t been coming forward,” Hoiseth said. “So we continue to work with Jeff, and he is becoming more and more accommodating. …If anyone has a better idea, we want to hear it and we’ll investigate it.”
Apparently, also willing to be accommodating is the local business community, which is feeling the sting of the child care shortage perhaps more than any other local sector, as people who can’t find suitable child care within Crookston or a reasonable distance from town are turning down job offers here and relocating elsewhere. CHEDA Board member Leon Kremeier on Tuesday mentioned a couple people who recently turned down good-paying jobs at Otter Tail Power Company, his employer, and moved their families, with children, elsewhere because of a lack of child care here.
Hoiseth said Tuesday he has verbal agreements from multiple employers in Crookston, who would be willing to provide ongoing financial support for the type of child care center being pursued here. The expressions of support have been so strong, he continued, that there might be enough support from the business community alone to cover the center’s ongoing operating costs, minus labor.
It’s likely that some level of up-front financial support from CHEDA and/or the City would be necessary to get Regal Academy Child Care Center off the ground, in addition to the Leckies’ investment, which includes a $20,000 grant they received. That seems to be the option favored by most CHEDA Board and city council members, but Stassen stressed on Tuesday the importance of joining the local business community in considering some form of ongoing financial support as well.
“With a non-profit, it’s much more attractive to have some level of ongoing commitment, even if it’s not very much,” Stassen explained. “There’s some predictability in knowing you have a City or CHEDA partner year to year and show that commitment to our businesses. The last thing you’d want is to (invest up-front only) and in five years (the child care center) ceases to exist.”
Hoiseth agreed. “You don’t want to lift it off the ground and then in two years it crashes,” he added.
Staffing is another major talking point. Fee, who noted that Erika Leckie has put in more than 1,000 hours working on her child care center concept, added that’s she’s expressed confidence that she’ll be able to sufficiently staff the center, which could potentially expand to 100 licensed slots.
“I keep hearing in the community, ‘good luck on finding staff,’” Fee said. “But she has a plan. She’s aggressive. If there’s a person out there who can do it, I think it’s her.”
Stassen said that while current local child care center providers understand the need for more licensed slots in Crookston, especially for the highly coveted infant slots, the reality is that some of their current staff will leave in favor of working for the new center. Hoiseth said he’s hearing similar concerns. “The know about the need, but they’re saying, ‘don’t take our staffs.’” he said.
Assuming some people switch jobs, Stassen said it’s important to note that even if the new center has 80 or so slots, the net impact on reducing the shortage won’t be 80 if current providers lose staff and have to cut back as a result.
The University of Minnesota Crookston graduates students with bachelors degrees in early childhood, so there are clear partnership opportunities, whether it’s internships or jobs after college. But Stassen said while the legislature in St. Paul isn’t in a position right now to play a major role in fixing the child care shortage afflicting much of the state, forces beyond the local level can play a major role in making child care a more attractive profession to study and carve out a career in.
“We’re graduating early childhood students from UMC and long term, that’s something to really look at,” Stassen said. “We need to make sure the state really understands that we have to help these people. These are four-year degrees and people are graduating with debt but they want to stay in the profession.”
Get things moving
Several CHEDA Board members on Tuesday agreed that now is the time to push the talks to the next level and start hashing out actual dollars and cents.
“We could have these little monthly discussions for three years,” Craig Morgan said.
“These discussions are not fruitless, we’re moving the needle every time we talk about this,” Hoiseth added. “But we have to get somewhere, though.”
“We have to get going on this; we can’t continue to have people not coming here,” At Large City Council Member Bobby Baird noted. “We’re missing out on families.”
While everyone agrees that even a child care center with up to 100 children and infants would put a “nice dent” in the local shortage but not be a cure-all, CHEDA Board member and city council member Steve Erickson said a successful Regal Academy Child Care Center in Crookston could be big.
“This could be a pillar of a fix in the whole state,” he said. “I think this would put us at the forefront.”