The expansion of childcare options in Garden City may become the next “hot topic” on the economic development front.

That’s what Bob Kreutzer, vice chairman of the Finney County Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors, said during the FCEDC’s monthly meeting on Wednesday.

Nicole Hahn, the FCEDC’s project manager who struggled to find childcare options for her infant daughter, agreed. Hahn’s baby daughter is a regular guest in the FCEDC office, and she says childcare has surpassed housing as an emergency need in Finney County.

FCEDC President Lona DuVall called the county’s childcare situation “dire.”

“There is simply not enough available, and as Nicole said, it’s a pretty close race between whether it’s housing or childcare that’s really damaging our workforce the most,” DuVall said.

DuVall noted that childcare is not typically a very profitable business, even when tuition rates go up. She said she expects the development of childcare services in Finney County to come from a grassroots effort rather than recruitment, because profit isn’t a good enough incentive.

The FCEDC currently is gathering childcare regulation experts and members of the Kansas Children’s Service League to tackle the issue as a task force.

DuVall said the strategy going forward will be to visit with the USD 457 Board of Education as officials explore the possibility of spreading smaller childcare centers throughout district campuses across the community, in addition to other large centers.

She said the FCEDC has a lead on a building that would be suitable for a large childcare center that would theoretically house some sort of nonprofit entity charged with oversight and assistance of Garden City’s childcare efforts through operational support.

Through visits with the city of Garden City, Finney County,Garden City Community College and school district officials, the FCEDC hopes to develop a plan to relieve the immediate pressure from the local demand for childcare.

Pastor Tim Fields, of Garden City’s Church of the Nazarene, said during the meeting that he started an 84-child daycare facility at another church location before building another one at the local church. He noted that Kansas has strict regulations when it comes to development of childcare facilities, and because those developments are in progress, getting a new center off the ground is a tricky situation.

Fields also says Kansas daycares tend to operate within a slim margin of operational stability — less than 3 percent — meaning the road to red on the budget sheet is far too short.

“When you operate on that kind of margin, it just doesn’t take very long to sink a business,” Fields said, adding that the state childcare services market isn’t exactly ripe for investment.

Still, Fields said he wants his 84-child facility to be part of Garden City’s solution, but he requested the FCEDC’s help.

DuVall said her goal is to create a network of childcare centers throughout the community.

“Childcare is its own unique beast, but I think it is a communitywide solution that we have to look for, and I think there’s going to be a lot of players at the table,” DuVall said.

Esther Pena, a site director at Garden City Community Day Care, said the childcare nonprofit that operates out of two local facilities has been struggling financially for about a year and a half due to unsustainable operational and maintenance costs.

Collectively, both facilities serve 166 children in Finney County. Still, she feels like the nonprofit is “fighting for relevance.”

Even after raising tuition rates twice in two years, Pena says revenues aren’t cutting it. One of the organization’s buildings was constructed in 1980, and the other was built in 1994, she said. Now, unforeseen maintenance costs are dangerously tipping the nonprofit’s delicate budget.

“We’re having trouble making payroll,” Pena said. “Every time it’s payroll week, we’re sweating, hoping that, ‘Are we going to be able to make it? Are we going to be able to pay everybody?’”

Families and teachers have donated supplies to the centers, Pena said, even with rising tuition rates and minimum wages for teachers. She said the daycares currently are unable to pay for classroom supplies.

“It’s sad because early childhood education is very, very important, and it is really important that the community has a quality place of education [and] childcare to take their children,” Pena said, adding that about 70 children are on a waiting list for the nonprofit’s services. “Those early childhood years we serve, 2 weeks old to 7 years old, those key years where they start to really develop cognitively, it’s just very important.”

Working in collaboration with Child Care Aware of Kansas and using data sourced from 2012, Shannon Dick, FCEDC’s lead strategic analyst, found that there are only about 1,307 childcare placement “slots” or potential openings in Finney County for children up to age 5. Meanwhile, the demand is around 1,792 slots, meaning there is a childcare availability shortfall of at least 485 slots.

Dick noted that Garden City has only gotten bigger since 2012, and there is actually less supply due to tighter regulations for home-based childcare providers. He further contended that improving childcare availability would stimulate job creation, workforce creation, economic impact and workforce enhancement.

To meet demand, the FCEDC has proposed establishing two large childcare centers for 110 to 145 children, two midsized centers for 50 to 75 children, and four small centers for 30 to 45 centers.

With the eight new centers, Dick predicted that 95 full-time equivalent jobs would be generated, with 1.55 jobs created in the community through additional industry and household spending for a total of 147 new full-time equivalent jobs, just by meeting the documented demand from 2012.

Workforce development also would find stimulation through the addition of an anticipated 80 percent of parents who would be able to join the workforce with a reliable childcare option, Dick said.

He calculated that number to total about 388 more workers at all skill levels in Finney County who, he said, would generate approximately $8.6 million in added personal income.

Filling the gap also would generate more than $2.1 million in county spending on childcare, according to Dick. In Kansas, each dollar spent on childhood education translates to about $1.98 in industry and household spending, meaning an additional $4.2 million would be spent in Finney County each year.

Dick also said quality childcare has been proven to boost workforce recruitment, reduce workforce turnover, lower workforce absenteeism and increase workforce productivity.

“Childcare is an essential piece of the infrastructure of a city,” he said.

 

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.