Crisis in the Heartland
Friday, July 31, 2020
There’s a daycare crisis in rural Minnesota. It’s looming over rural Todd County like a storm rolling across the prairie. Everyone in the middle of it can see it, even as it grows, but convincing those under clear skies that it exists is an uphill battle. Recently, local economic development authorities began seeing encouraging signs of support through the involvement of the MN Dept. of Human Services, Initiative Foundation and First Children’s Finance in the form of grants to several hard-hit communities.
Last summer, the Initiative Foundation selected four central Minnesota cities to receive grants amounting to $10,000 each in response to the daycare crisis. In greater Todd County, Long Prairie, Clarissa, and Staples/Motley were the selected recipients, dividing the grant money between with the expectation that they would match the grant through private and public partners to advance community-based solutions.
Most people are familiar with the gambling term “playing the slots.” Melissa Radermacher, Director of the Staples Economic Development Authority, isn’t much of a gambler, but she does play a form of slots every day. In her world, “slots” refers to daycare spaces. She’s quick to point out she’s losing, right now, but like any gambler, she hopes that will turn around so she keeps her hand in the game.
Staples, combined with nearby Motley, has a population of just over 3,600 people. Daycare resources are determined by zip code and school district. Radermacher says that based on analysis, they are short 265 slots, with infants (birth to age five) comprising about a third of that percentage. “As an economic developer,” she says “we need our businesses to be able to attract employees, and we need people to move to the area as they're trying to grow. We need our employers to be able to retain them. So, attraction and retention is critical. As they grow their family, they need to have childcare to be able to continue to either a) continue working or b) move to the area so they can work for these companies.”
First Children's Finance provided Melissa and her team the technical assistance in support of the grant, taking them through a planning process, and helping them identify what the need is. First Children’s Finance was founded in 1991, and is a national nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota with regional offices in Iowa and Michigan.” First Children’s Finance works to stabilize, improve and expand high-quality child care businesses serving low- and moderate-income families. First Children’s Finance provides financing, child care business training and consulting, and build partnerships that connect childcare businesses with the resources and expertise of the public and private sectors”
The ultimate goal of that grant was to add additional spots within the community, to be able to take in additional children,”affirms Radermacher. In addition, First Children’s Finance worked with Staples to help identify what strategies would work and developed a plan to fill the daycare slots. “They have been amazing,” she adds. “They're experts in the field, and they know a whole lot more than I know about child care and the needs. Together, they created a Strategic Child Care Supply Plan to address the needs in Staples/Motley.
The same shortage of daycare slots can be found just a short drive down the road in Long Prairie. The need is the same, but here, the challenge is not only finding slots, but matching the availability of daycare providers to the extended shift hours and 24/7 operations of Long Prairie’s largest employers, says Luan Thomas-Brunkhorst, Director of the Long Prairie Chamber of Commerce, and Assistant Director of the Long Prairie Economic Development Authority. “We have Long Prairie Packing and Dan’s Prize; we have Central Bi (Central Bi-Products). Central Bi’s 24 hours. Chandler Industries is now 24 hours. Long Prairie Packing has long hours; 4:30 in the morning to 5:30 at night. There aren't any daycare providers or centers that open that early and stay open that late.
Even if they aligned in a perfect world, the number of available daycare slots still don’t add up. For an in-home, small business daycare, state regulations allow a maximum of twelve slots. In Long Prairie there are thirteen daycares, so with just the simple math that’s a little over 150 spaces, with again, the approximate one-third taken with infants. “The Long Prairie Packing Plant is now up to 560 employees, as well as Dan’s Prize, and then Central Bi increased their hours to 24 hours,” explains Thomas-Brunkhorst.
Receiving the grant money will go a long way but again, it isn’t nearly enough to meet the current shortage in the Long Prairie area. One bright spot is the expansion of the Trinity Lutheran Preschool childcare center from 20 slots to 49. Of particular benefit to the community is their offering of daycare for school-aged children, which helps alleviate issues in families where both parents are at work. A large portion of the grant money has gone to help offset the expansion costs for this program. A small portion of the grant money is going towards exploring a cooperative to meet the child care needs of Spanish speaking families. The Chamber and EDA are in conversation with the Latino Economic Development Center.
In Long Prairie, the role of an economic developer is not as clearly defined as it was perhaps even a decade ago, as Thomas-Brunkhorst can attest. She often finds herself caught between promoting business, leading the Chamber. “I promote business,” she says. “That means my businesses, those are my chamber members for the most part. 90% of them are chamber members. They need me to find a solution, or they want me to help find a solution and be in conversation or connect them with whoever could help them.”
In small towns like Long Prairie, and Staples/Motley, it's a slow process to do anything. “You need to have people doing things you know who you know will get the job done, concludes Luan Thomas-Brunkhorst. “That comes from years of knowledge.” She finds herself looking for people or organizations she refers to as champions, people or organizations with expertise in areas of daycare, housing, language who can assist, get involved, and work with everyone to find solutions. The Initiative Foundation is one of those champions. They are looking for and finding Childcare solutions. They truly uphold their mission. The Initiative Foundation works to strengthen the communities, families, and economy of central Minnesota and unlock the power of central Minnesota people to build and sustain healthy communities. “I appreciated their support, efficiency and constant contact. They always had my back.”
The involvement of the Initiative Foundation and First Children’s Finance is a boost to the needs of Todd County, and the support they give to community advocates is invaluable, concludes Melissa Radermacher from her office in Staples. “First Children’s Finance, they're just amazing. I would recommend any provider go to them if they're looking at opening or expanding, so you really do help people get through that process.