With the successful approval of Garden City’s STAR bond project, the Finney County Economic Development Corp. has the ability to refocus its efforts on something new.

While the FCEDC handles numerous projects at any given time, from business prospects to workforce development initiatives, the agency is also tasked with taking on large-scale projects intended to make Finney County a better place to work and live.

The approval by the state of Garden City’s STAR bond project, which is set to make Finney County more of a regional tourist destination with its "Sports of the World" concept, now will allow the FCEDC to fine-tune its commitment to another looming initiative: Finney County’s ongoing childcare shortage.

Nicole Hahn, FCEDC project manager, knows the shortage well. She searched for childcare options for her newborn baby daughter for months, but now she just brings her to work on most days — just one example of the ways community members are working around the divide.

FCEDC President and CEO Lona DuVall said she expects big things to start happening in 2018 to begin alleviating the problem.

“The goals that we have set for 2018 — we always have a myriad of goals, obviously — but our real focus this year we know needs to be on solving the childcare concerns and the early childcare concerns in Finney County,” she said. “There’s a dire need for additional childcare facilities and for a variety of childcare options, so we know that that’s an issue.”


Not a new issue

The childcare shortage is not new to Finney County, nor is it new to the state. As Tanya Koehn, director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, put it, "Finney County is not alone in this."

According to a 2017 report published by Child Care Aware, an organization that administers the state’s childcare referral service, Finney County’s childcare options only meet about 28 percent of the community’s demand.

Koehn explained that while some providers may be licensed to care for 10 children, they might only be comfortable caring for eight, otherwise known as desired capacity. Finney County’s desired childcare capacity, spanning home, preschool and center facility models, allows for 878 potential openings, according to the agency, but the desired capacity is only 770.

Other counties in the region arguably have it worse. Counties that meet 24 percent of demand or less in southwest Kansas include Greeley, Wichita and Seward counties, which meet 24, 23 and 18 percent, respectively.

Counties that meet 25 to 50 percent of their childcare demand include Finney, Lane, Ness, Kearny, Hamilton, Haskell, Ford, Meade, Stevens and Morton counties.

Meanwhile, Clark and Scott counties are faring best in the region, meeting 84 and 82 percent of their demand, respectively.

According to the Center for American Progress, some of the worst “childcare deserts” are in some of the most urbanized states, such as California and New York, where more than 60 percent of families are facing a severe lack of childcare resources.

The study doesn’t include data for Kansas and many other rural states, but Child Care Aware suggests that much of the lower half of the state and many of the urban centers are being affected, as well as pockets of the northeastern corner. All of the Wichita area is facing an issue similar to Finney County’s, and so is Wyandotte County.


Quantifying the problem

While Finney County doesn’t occupy the lowest quartile of childcare demand met in the region, it comes dangerously close. Given its role as a regional hub, the implications for community recruitment and workforce development are not good when it comes to giving new families easy access to unencumbered employment.

According to Child Care Aware, there are 4,188 children under age 6 in Finney County, and 65 percent have no parents without a job.

Of non-traditional care providers in Finney County, four offer evening care, none offer overnight care, two offer weekend care, 44 offer part-time care, 28 offer special needs care, and 54 offer infant toddler care, but capacities vary by model.

There are 36 licensed daycare homes, 17 group daycare homes, three childcare centers and four preschools in Finney County, according to Child Care Aware.

Despite the report’s findings that there are about 770 openings for children in Finney County, numbers issued last year by the FCEDC were even more conservative.

Working in collaboration with Child Care Aware and using data sourced from 2012, Shannon Dick, FCEDC’s lead strategic analyst, found that there are only about 1,307 childcare slots in Finney County for children up to age 5. The demand, he calculated, 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. According to Child Care Aware, the number of childcare options in the community has dropped from 90 in 2012 to 61 in 2018. Dick contended that improving childcare availability would stimulate job creation, workforce creation, economic impact and workforce enhancement.

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

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 be stimulated 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 about 388 more workers at all skill levels in Finney County 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.


Wading through the regulations

Starting a successful childcare practice requires a little selflessness and a whole lot of logistical know-how.

Jenette Turpin, an instructor at Garden City High School teaching early childhood education as a career pathway, has been contracted by Western Kansas Statistical Lab to formulate a blueprint by which people can navigate the licensing complexities of setting up an early childhood care facility.

With a mélange of experiences that inform her expertise — including a past directorship of an early childhood education program, her teaching role at GCHS, and time spent running a home daycare near Manhattan — Turpin has become a point person for the FCEDC and will be instrumental in providing logistical assistance as the community works to deliver a childcare remedy to Finney County.

“There is a lot of interest in childcare, and a lot of really good, well meaning organizations want to take it on,” Turpin said. “It’s a really great intention, but people jump into it thinking that it’s like other organizations where you find a building and you just make it work. But what happens is, it turns out there are a lot of regulations, like a whole lot of regulations.”

Turpin likened the rigidity of childcare facility regulations to those involved in the establishment of a medical facility. She noted that the amount of space, number of staff members, number of sinks and child-accessible facilities are just a few things that make the regulations unique.

Many people embark on the journey to start up a childcare facility, she said, before finding that they weren’t given all the necessary information. Her job will be to help provide some of that information.

Her introductory blueprint includes specific numbers relevant to costs of various structural combinations and business models.

“It’s kind of like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ of childcare that I made up for people who are interested in all these different combinations,” she said.

She’s tackling the problem from the front end, too. In her role as a teacher for students exploring early childhood education as a career pathway at the high school, she factors the local shortfall into her conversations with kids, teaching them about logistics and childcare business practices to prepare them for the future. Turpin even lets them conduct their own childcare surveys to determine community needs.

But the deterrents to starting a business aren’t just regulatory. Profits can be a disincentive, as well.

“The people that get into it have to get into it for a different reason other than direct financial gain from that specific organization,” Turpin said. “It just is not a moneymaking venture. It’s a break even venture, and it needs to be a break even venture.”

She added that it takes careful planning and coordination to successfully run a childcare business because there is no margin for error when profits are rarely generated in excess.

Investors also don’t often take into consideration the necessary community impact created by good early childhood education programs, Turpin said, especially the importance of kids’ early formative development.

“There is not really another industry like this, and it’s infrastructure, but nobody has ever thought of it as infrastructure,” Turpin said. “We have to have it. People can’t go to work if they don’t have somewhere to put their kids.”


'Black market' childcare

Aspiring providers face an added barrier to starting a home-based daycare with the introduction in 2010 of regulations discouraging such providers from entering the business.

Before Lexie’s Law was ratified to increase regulations and ensure child safety, there was a difference between registered and licensed home providers, and registered providers enjoyed laxer regulations with, as an example, fewer inspections.

The law was passed to assuage concerns over safety issues, but it resulted in the elimination of the registered home provider option without translating to an increase in more licensed home providers, who faced even more regulations than before, Turpin said.

The result, Turpin explained, is that more people are simply going underground with their practices, offering completely unmonitored illegal care to address the unmet demand created by rampant childcare deserts.

Turpin said these unlicensed providers, who were previously subject to at least some inspections under the old registered home provider format, are no longer inspected because the Department of Children and Families no longer knows they exist.

That means parents who can’t get their kid into a licensed practice often have to shoulder the uncertainty that an unlicensed, unmonitored provider brings.

“Parents know that they’re not licensed, so they can’t ask questions of other officials because if they shut down or if they let them know and their unlicensed or illegal childcare gets shut down, then they can’t go to work,” Turpin said. “There’s no other option. You have to have your kids in care or you can’t go to work.”

Terming the practices “black market” childcare, Turpin noted that such providers don’t have to indicate their presence to the fire marshal, don’t have to follow guidelines that set ceilings on the number of children allowed at each practice, and, essentially, “don’t have to do anything.”

“If you did registered (home provider practices), at least you would require some initial training, at least everybody would know that you exist as a childcare provider, at least people would be able to publicly speak about where they’re bringing their kids, and at least we would be able to provide support and education to them,” Turpin said.

She added that the problem is even worse in a community like Finney County, which has a large transient population without local family support systems that could assume childcare responsibilities in times of need.


Tackling the problem

DuVall said the FCEDC is working with stakeholders to solve the issue because every economic development effort hinges on meeting childcare as a basic infrastructural need.

For the last two years, she said, the FCEDC has been been diligent in its efforts to address the needs of corporate partners who recognize a sizeable impact to their workforce as result of the childcare shortfall.

“We felt in the beginning, and still feel today, that it really has to be a comprehensive solution,” DuVall said. She noted that there have to be cost effective options that also provide models that are lacking or don’t currently exist in the community, such as the overnight model.

“That’s one of those things that because that’s a very specific model of care, certainly not every center needs to have that available, but we need to have enough of that care available to make sure we can meet the need,” she said, adding that it’s still left to be seen if a round-the-clock model will require around 150 available spaces or 60.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll have a solution in 2018. We’re hopeful that it will be a very well known, very publicly understood model of care going forward, and we would anticipate that we’ll be able to get that done this year.”


Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.