In its most recent report, The State of America’s Children, the Children’s Defense Fund found the nation fell short some 3.6 million licensed child care spaces for children potentially in need of child care in 2021. This is disastrous from both a personal and national economic perspective. Not only are millions of parents put in the position of giving up work needed to support their families due to a lack of child care options, the nation itself is losing out – $122 billion in lost productivity, earnings and tax revenue each year, according to a 2023 report from Ready Nation.
In short, if communities are going to thrive economically, they need to address the child care needs of workers. This means playing a role in coordinating and investing in more capacity and more space. As community leaders begin to think about opportunities in their area, one of the biggest hurdles they face, in addition to funding, is knowing where to start.
Identifying your Community Needs
For many communities, the question of how to realize the goal for more space becomes a binary choice: should they repurpose an existing building or build a new, dedicated child care facility? Each has advantages, with numerous factors going into the final decision. But even before that decision is made, leaders must do the work to understand the true needs of the community. How many slots will be needed for infants and toddlers? Is there a need for child care during non-traditional hours (2nd and 3rd shifts)? Does the community need space for children with special needs?
It’s rare a single solution can address all child care availability issues. A single, large child care center might meet the target number of slots but fall short of delivering the different types of child care needed in that community. In some cases, the solution lies with smaller businesses that can fill those niche needs.
Understanding the desired outcomes for the community is critical to creating an intentional path forward, including what type of space will best fit those goals.
Can an Existing Space Fill the Need?
Repurposing existing buildings can be an excellent solution, but it would be incorrect to say it is always the most economical decision. A beloved old church, empty retail center or even a long-closed school could require expensive remediation, including asbestos removal or other hazardous waste before it can be repurposed for another use.
The cost of renovating an existing building to meet current building codes and requirements can quickly add up. Elevators, ramps, and other accessibility features might be required. Updating the building to be accessible along with additional safety features such as fire suppression additions such as a sprinkler system and additional exits. Is the wiring of the building up to code? Every general contractor can tell you an older building can yield many costly surprises before remodeling efforts are complete.
Due diligence will be needed to determine if the existing property meets other requirements, including whether it is properly zoned for a child care space. Does it meet all health department requirements, or any other agencies involved in approval? If the original building carries historical and/or emotional value in the community, additional messaging might be needed to win over critics. Any one of these scenarios could lengthen, or even stop your renovation timeline.
In the end, an existing site could check all your boxes and could be an ideal solution, but work is needed to make sure retrofitting the building falls into your budget. It is also important to ensure the result is a sustainable, long-term solution, rather than a short-term Band-Aid that will require another, more expensive solution down the road.
Is There an Opportunity to Create New?
There are times when a new building will be a better choice based on the availability of existing buildings and the cost to rehab those buildings.
A new building affords the opportunity to act intentionally to solve for a variety of needs. That includes the opportunity to find the best site for your specific needs. A new building will be built to current codes, and more importantly, because a new building is designed from the ground up, it can be customized to meet the true needs of the community. This could include space for a family care provider, a larger child care center, or even a broader solution approach with an early education center that better suits the needs of some communities. Whatever the path, it can provide an opportunity to consider state-of-the-art features, and modern design.
“In a perfect world, building from the ground up allows communities to create the best solution possible for both the community and the children those spaces will serve,” explained Jim Herget, President of Reprise Design, a Minnesota-based architecture and planning services company. “With a new building, we can more easily integrate the latest approaches to child care, including equipment and materials that offer the greatest flexibility and safety, as well as how the space itself is used.”
Reprise Design continues design work with Business of Child Care on a new concept called the EarlyEd FlexPlex, which is a concept that allows multiple, smaller child care businesses to operate under one roof. Think in terms of the co-working spaces we’ve become familiar with in recent years. Each business leases the space it needs to serve a particular purpose – in this case, child care. The result is efficiency through some shared spaces, and the ability to create an opportunity for niche child care businesses to cover a range of needs.
How to Start Intentionally
Regardless of whether a community opts to build new or repurpose an existing building there are essential considerations. Suitability of the site, cost, and alternative options among them. The roadmap to breaking ground generally follows a tried-and-true path:
- Create a team and a use case: Child care is a community-wide issue with multiple stakeholders who benefit from a quality child care system. This is the group that will help determine the true needs of the community for a new child care space, and – importantly – will define the desired outcomes for the community.
- Identify your project partners: This includes your development lead, an architect, a general contractor, and vendors who will build or rehabilitate your building.
- Determine your budget: How much will it cost to build new or repurpose an existing site? Beyond the building itself, does your budget include equipment and materials necessary for operation?
- Secure the funding: Does your team know where the money is coming from? Are there opportunities for state or federal funds that are either new or left over from previous initiatives? Are there any local beneficiaries of the project willing to contribute to its cost?
Consider a Partner
As communities move forward with plans to create additional child care spaces, there can be an advantage in working with an experienced team to help guide both the discovery process and evaluation of building options. This can speed the process and eliminate missteps along the way. Business of Child Care has a team of space development partners to help navigate the process and provide an intentional plan that best suits the community’s desired outcomes.
Creating new spaces for child care in any community is a process that should be strategic and deliberate. With scarce dollars, decisions need to be logical, not emotional. The bottom line is the economic health of a community depends on adequate child care – this is a must have for economic growth, not a nice-to-have.
At Business of Child Care, we are dedicated to assisting communities in navigating the complex landscape of expanding child care spaces. Our team of child care space partners is here to support your community in evaluating the myriad of opportunities available.