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Child care shortage in and around Rochester has cities searching for solutions

Southeastern Minnesota communities are working to add 4,400 child care slots. The region's economic success may hang on the outcome.

Harmony Kids Learning Center
Kinzee Hovey, a 4-5 preschool teacher, talks about the letter "L" with a class of children Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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HARMONY — In 2015, Umbelina Cremer noticed a problem. Employees at Harmony Enterprises — a business Umbelina and her husband, Steve Cremer, co-own — were using their paid vacation time to stay home with their children when they couldn’t find child care.

“They felt as a family that they never had that extra time for vacation time, just because of that,” said Cremer, who had previously operated her own in-home day care for 20 years.

In response, the Cremers began renovating a warehouse across parking lot at Harmony Enterprises with the intent to turn it into a child care center.

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In June 2016, Harmony Kids Learning Center opened its doors. Today, 21 staff members care for the 80-some infants, toddlers and school-aged children enrolled at Harmony Kids.

While the new child care center has helped Harmony Enterprises’ employees with their child care needs, Cremer said there are still gaps.

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“We’re full in the babies department,” she said. “We have a waiting list until May of 2023.”

A growing problem

Like health care and education, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already existing issues facing child care access across the country.

In Southeast Minnesota, child care availability has decreased since 2019, especially among in-home providers, and a 2021 survey from First Children’s Finance estimates that almost 4,400 child care slots are needed across Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties.

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Data from a June 2021 First Children's Finance study shows how many child care slots are needed per county in Minnesota.

“To meet the child care need that exists in the southern region of the state … licensed child care capacity would have to expand by 24%,” said Bharti Wahi, deputy assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “I think those shortages exist everywhere, but certainly the need in southeastern Minnesota is acute.”

It’s an issue that impacts whole communities.

“Our biggest goal is to not lose our families,” said Spiff Slifka, community and business development specialist for the town of LeRoy, population 957. “If you’re going to, you know, Stewartville to bring your kid through (ages) 0-to-3 day care and you work in Rochester, who’s to say that you won’t move there eventually?”

To address deficits in child care access, several Southeast Minnesota communities, agencies and businesses are developing solutions to establish new child care centers and support existing providers.

A challenging industry

Access to child care is an issue that predates the pandemic. This is especially true for infant care.

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“Infant care, for any of us who have cared for an infant, is a pretty labor-intensive, hands-on project, right?” Wahi said. “So, I think, when providers are assessing full capacity, they’re thinking about how many infants they can safely care for.”

Sara Stebbins, director of early learning scholarships for Families First of Minnesota , said child care is one of the three major social issues facing rural and urban communities across the state. Transportation and affordable housing round out the trifecta.

Harmony Kids Learning Center
Children work on drawing lady bugs while learning about the letter "L" on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“And they all tie together,” Stebbins said. “I think those three look differently post-COVID. Transportation, obviously, is still an issue. Affordable housing, because of the higher costs and things right now, is still a struggle. And then you go along with service work, the incomes that are most likely needing some assistance to pay for the high cost of child care, that industry looks different."

Since 2019, child care capacity has decreased across Southeast Minnesota. The biggest drops in capacity come from fewer family child care providers. In Fillmore County, the number of licensed family providers dropped from 39 to 29 over the past three years, contributing to a 17.8% overall decrease in available slots. In that same time period, Dodge, Goodhue and Olmsted counties also lost between 20% to 25% of their family child care capacity.

“It used to be that when people went into family child care, they went into it and that was their career,” said Teri Steckelberg, business development manager for East Minnesota with First Children’s Finance. “We are seeing a lot of those people retiring now, and the pandemic actually exacerbated that. We’re seeing less and less younger people going into the field of child care, and we’re also seeing them not really having a desire to stay in the field for forever like previous generations have.”

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Child care capacity has declined in Olmsted County and surrounding counties since 2019, per Minnesota Department of Human Services Data.

Costs and benefits

Steckelberg said low pay is a big factor in child care provider retention.

“There’s not much of a profit margin in child care,” she said. “In small rural communities, especially where you can’t charge as high of rates like you can in some of the larger communities like Rochester or Mankato. … In smaller, rural communities where the rates are lower, you can’t charge families as much because they just can’t afford to pay as much.”

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The child care business model is challenging both in terms of cost and revenue, Wahi said.

“Taking care of children is both a rewarding but also an intense job,” Wahi said. "So many great child care providers are so committed to their work, but it is difficult.”

Sidebar: Family, friend and neighbor child care
Another option for parents seeking child care: family, friends and neighbors. This type of child care has always existed, like when a grandparent babysits their grandchild while the parents are working, but this important caregiving work often isn’t eligible for state assistance. Stebbins with Families First said there is now a way to bring these types of child care providers into the fold.

“You can take one step beyond the FFN, do the legal non-license where you become registered at the county … so you can accept some assistance payments,” Stebbins said. “We just got funding to do some real directed outreach, targeted work in Rochester, Winona, Mankato to do some FFN work and try to establish a statewide system."

The state has made steps to support child care providers and families: Wahi said DHS has doled out $102 million in Child Care Stabilization Grants to Minnesota providers since September 2021.

“In terms of the region we’re speaking to, about 6,700 base grants have been given in Olmsted, Dodge, Winona, Wabasha, Fillmore and Goodhue counties in that same time frame, resulting in about $9.6 million of support,” she said, adding that 298 child care providers in the region also received financial hardship grants this year.

Child care harmony in Harmony

In Fillmore County, Harmony Enterprises responded to rural residents’ needs by opening Harmony Kids Learning Center. But it hasn’t come easy.

Harmony Kids Learning Center
Children play on the playground Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“Child care is not just because we want to make money – and trust me, in six years, I haven’t made a nickel profit,” Cremer said. “(My husband and I) still pay for all the mortgages out of our own pocket. … It’s very difficult to sustain yourself.”

Now that the center has been open for more than six years, Cremer said there are still issues that prevent her from offering 99 child care slots, the maximum the center is licensed to have.

“My rooms are big enough that I could have 15 children per room,” Cremer said. “And I have eight in each room because I don’t have the staff to help me take care of them.”

Another hangup for Harmony Kids: qualifying for the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is implemented in Minnesota through the Department of Education.

“We have our center in one of the poorest counties in Minnesota, and yet I don’t qualify for the food program. The guidelines that they have to qualify our parents, it’s ridiculous,” Cremer said. “Unless you’re nonprofit, you get a free ride. Otherwise, you’re S-O-L.”

Harmony Kids Learning Center
Umbelina Cremer is the owner and executive director of Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony. Cremer is photographed Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Despite the roadblocks, Cremer said Harmony Kids has had a positive impact on her business’ employees and other parents in and around Harmony. The center partners with family child care providers in the area to cover possible gaps in care when in-home providers need to take time off.

“Now we see families more taking vacations instead of using their vacation to take care of the kids,” Cremer said. “That’s been really good for our community.”

Seeking community solutions

Community leaders in LeRoy hope to implement a similar solution to meet the town’s stark child care needs.

“There is no (age) 0-to-3 day care in LeRoy, Minnesota,” Slifka said. “They have day care for (ages) 3 to 5 that is associated with the school, but nothing for 0 to 3.”

That’s why LeRoy's Economic Development Authority is working with the First Presbyterian Church to bring some of its Sunday School rooms up to state standards for off-premises family day care.

“It’s a smaller congregation, so some of these rooms weren’t being used 100%,” said LeRoy City Council member Gerald Payne. “That’s why we went to (the church) and asked if we could present our idea to them. … They’re almost looking at this as mission work. This is something their church and their church family can do for the town of LeRoy and for the young people and for the mothers and fathers that are working.”

With the community facing significant needs for child care, the City of Wabasha and the Wabasha Port Authority directed ARPA dollars toward child care assistance grants.

Payne said the church would be able to provide three large rooms in its Sunday School wing for child care. So far, the EDA has worked with the county to see what changes need to be made to bring the church space up to state requirements.

“We need to install a bathroom because it has to be a bathroom that is only accessible to day care people,” Payne said. “But we’ve worked out a way where we can put that in fairly easily right next to an existing bathroom.”

The church has also agreed to fence an outdoor play area, and air conditioning will need to be installed in those rooms. The biggest piece of the puzzle, according to Payne: finding someone to run the operation.

“We’re wanting someone to take this on and run it as their business,” he said. “They would work with the church council to figure out the rent. They would hire and fire the employees. They would run it totally.”

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Municipal initiatives to expand child care have been implemented in other communities. This summer, the city of Wabasha and its port authority offered $60,000 in grants to get new family child care providers off the ground and help existing in-home providers cover expenses like replacing furniture or updating appliances.

For Pam Ridgeway, who has operated her in-home day care in Wabasha for 29 years, the existing provider grant she received helped her buy new appliances for her home. She said she’s hopeful that Wabasha’s new provider grants will help expand access to infant care.

“Things are hopefully looking up in that area, so that’d be great,” Ridgeway said.

In 2017, the Eyota City Council approved a $162,000 financial package to help create Little Eagles Childcare Center.

“The city leaders were so supportive,” said Eyota EDA director Cathy Enerson, who helped with the Little Eagles proposal. She said the city’s support propelled the project.

Sidebar: Lanesboro's solution
In Lanesboro, the public school’s longstanding day care has caught up to the community’s child care needs.

“I think from a day care facility perspective, at least, I think we’re adequate,” said Matt Schultz, Lanesboro Public Schools superintendent. “I think we’re able to serve the needs of the community.”

When it opened in 1988, Lanesboro Child Care Center was the first facility in Minnesota to offer day care through the school system. Through the years, the school district kept increasing the center’s capacity, culminating in a new center that opened in January 2021.

“Now we can take 100 infants through preschool-aged students at any one time,” Schultz said.

That seems to be enough for the town of 750.

“With all that collaboration and support, they were able to build a 99-slot child care center. Their project doubled.”

There aren’t any one-size-fits-all options for alleviating the need for child care across Southeast Minnesota, but different communities are taking strides to support providers and bring new workers into the fold. In the meantime, Stebbins advises parents to find community support and have patience as they navigate their child care options.

“Plan ahead and be creative is really what we tell people,” she said.

MORE CHILD CARE PHOTOS:

Harmony Kids Learning Center
Taylor Richardson, a toddler teacher, works with a group of toddlers Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Harmony Kids Learning Center
Children work on drawing lady bugs while learning about the letter "L" on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Harmony Kids Learning Center
Emilee Ristau, a 3-4 preschool teacher, works with a group of children Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Harmony Kids Learning Center
Children play Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Harmony Kids Learning Center
Angie Haugerud, a 4-5 preschool teacher, works with a group of children Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Harmony Kids Learning Center
Kinzee Hovey, a 4-5 preschool teacher, reads a book to children Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Harmony Kids Learning Center
Children play on the playground Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Harmony Kids Learning Center in Harmony.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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