day care

Youngsters in the 5-year-old room at the Lil’ Bee’s Learning Center play with puzzles and action figures during a playtime in February.

Every small town in rural Minnesota has a vacant building or two that could be repurposed for child care, but every small town also has unique needs that require unique solutions.

In Eagle Lake, the answer is to expand the community’s church-based child care. In Wells, a local bank gave up space within its building to provide a sort of “pod” of family-based child care providers.

Those are simple-sounding solutions communities can take care of with a little help from state and federal resources, said Tim Penny, CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. With the pandemic testing the durability of Minnesota’s struggling child care industry, advocates are calling for more support to solve the state’s child care shortage.

“We need more dollars to support that sort of activity all across rural Minnesota,” Penny said.

A recent study by the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development shows Minnesota lost about 3,017 total child care slots in 2020. South-central and southeastern Minnesota gained 464 child care slots from child care centers from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020. But the region lost 777 slots from family-based providers during that same period.

Locally, data compiled by the nonprofit First Children’s Finance estimates Mankato’s child care shortage at about 732 slots. St. Peter is reportedly short about 255 slots, while Waseca is lacking 318 slots and New Ulm is short 166 slots. Even smaller communities such as Janesville and Le Center are short 105 and 127 slots, respectively.

Yet the latest numbers are part of a worrying long-term trend. Greater Minnesota is needing almost 40,000 child care slots across the region, with about 20,000 of those disappearing between 2000 and 2020. Those lost slots primarily came from family-based providers who either switched careers or retired.

The metro area also has lost child care slots, but new child care centers have almost made up those losses. While the Twin Cities has the population density to make child care centers a profitable business, Greater Minnesota centers have far more difficulty staying open.

“I recently had a conversation with one of the larger child care center operations,” said Scott McMahon, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. “They tried to go into Duluth where you would think you could put a center in without a problem, and they couldn’t make the numbers work.”

The partnership, an economic development-focused group, is working with similar groups across the state to secure funding for several child care-related programs. Advocates would like the state to allot about $20 million to the Greater Minnesota Child Care Facilities Capital Grant Program. The program, spearheaded by former state Rep. Jeff Brand, of St. Peter, was created last year but hasn’t yet been funded. It would provide money to build child care facilities in rural areas.

Advocates would also like to see lawmakers pass about $4 million to the Minnesota Initiative Foundations as well as $10 million allotted toward Department of Employment and Economic Development grants for child care businesses.

Lawmakers appear to be more receptive than normal to child care-related requests, especially as it relates to the state’s economic development. In previous years, Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over whether to fund more child care issues or whether to strip back some of the burdensome regulations providers face.

Advocates say lawmakers have softened their stances and are willing to address both issues, especially as child care is seen by businesses as a crucial component to Minnesota’s rebound from an economic downturn.

“It really just impacts everything,” said Nicole Griensewic, executive director of Region Nine Development Commission. “It really has been a silent crisis for a while and then about five years ago, all of a sudden it was the No. 1 legislative priority and it has remained that way.”

Griensewic said she’s hearing from more businesses who judge whether to start operations in a community by whether it has proper child care resources. She said she’s also hearing from professionals throughout the area who plan when they’ll have children with other colleagues to take up existing child care slots.

“People shouldn’t have to have conversations like that with their coworkers,” Griensewic said.

Minnesota is already set to receive about $520 million in COVID-related funds tied to child care. About $200 million will go toward the state’s child care assistance program and other family-related grants. The remaining $320 million will go toward grants for providers.

Area organizations such as Region Nine and SMIF already assist child care centers and family-based providers with grants and loans, such as the ones provided through DEED. SMIF also regularly hosts and pays for mandatory provider training throughout the year.

Advocates say the incoming federal funding will boost not only those programs but pay off in future training, child care spaces and provider support.

“It will be transformational in our communities when we get those investments out there,” McMahon said. “We just need our political leaders to take on the leadership role and make the decisions they need to make to address this issue.”

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