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Lack of adequate child care identified as priority issue

The need for quality, affordable child care in the Park Rapids area is important not only to parents, but to business owners as well.

"Affordable, quality child care is a key factor in having productive employees and youth that are ready to enter the workforce," Business Development Specialist Jessica Beyer of First Children's Finance told business and community leaders who met to address the issue Thursday.

The meeting was the first of three work sessions designed to bring various groups together to brainstorm ideas to meet local child care needs.

First Children's Finance is a national, non-profit organization that works in partnership with communities to procure high quality and financially sustainable child care.

The second meeting in this series will be held Thursday, Dec. 21 and will focus on finding common ground and exploring potential solutions for inadequate child care.

"I will be providing a synthesis of information from the previous meetings and we'll look at the direction this community wants to go in moving forward," Beyer said. "We want everyone involved to be on the same page."

The final session on Jan. 11 will decide on a course of action to meet the child care needs of the Park Rapids area community.

"This is an important opportunity to bring all parties together to reach a common understanding and work together," said David Collins, executive director of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission (HCREDC). "This is a community issue that won't be solved by one group alone. We need to build on solutions and ideas to come up with a final plan that works for everyone."

Members attending these sessions, sponsored by the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, include child care providers, business owners, community leaders and representatives from the Early Childhood Initiative, Mahube-Otwa and the HCREDC.

Child care costs more in Minnesota

The cost of child care in Minnesota is more than 50 percent higher compared with the rest of the country. According to statistics from Child Care Aware, the annual state average for child care for one child in Minnesota is $14,366 compared to a U.S. average of $9,255. With two children, the cost rises to $25,485 in Minnesota compared with $16,934 nationwide.

"That means a chunk of each parent's check goes to child care, and it's a struggle for families," Beyer said. "A breakdown of the cost of child care in our area will be presented at the December meeting."

Beyer explained that access to good, affordable child care is important because it is correlated with less employee absenteeism and higher employee productivity.

"Building a strong, quality workforce is vital to the growth of your business," said Collins.

Developing child care business plans

Even though child care is expensive, Beyer said that doesn't mean child care providers and workers are getting rich. For example, center staff average only $9 to $13 per hour, and many providers each year go out of business due to a lack of profit.

Beyer said that, since its beginning in 1991, First Children's Finance has made loans totalling $11 million that have created 8,500 child care "slots." The organization works with child care providers to create a viable business plan.

"People who love children and go into child care don't necessarily have the background to be the CEO of a company," she said.

First Children's Finance works with those seeking loans to give them the business knowledge to succeed. That's important because the state lost 875 childcare providers in 2015-2016, and when a facility closes it creates stress for both children and parents.

"Quality child care is crucial to the child's future because 90 percent of brain development takes place before age five," she said.

Beyer explained that optimum brain development is correlated with being a good reader by the third grade milestone, which in turn, is associated with lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and jail time. She said that children with optimum brain development are also more likely to have the ability to be productive employees when they grow up.

In addition, children who are in an ideal child care setting learn important social skills that will help them get along with others in life.

"We all want employees who know how to play nice in the sandbox," Beyer said.

Beyer's presentation on Thursday showcased partnerships between the public and private sectors in other parts of the state, along with keys to success in these partnerships.

"It's important to think outside the box of family-based care and look at different and creative solutions," she said. "A child care facility could be located in a business or in a house that is rented for that purpose instead of in the child care provider's home. We are exploring how the community can support child care programs that are already operating and find innovative solutions to create new programs."