Five years ago, child care was in even shorter supply in Pella.
The only licensed center in the city of 10,000 didn’t open until after 6 a.m., Kate Rehling remembers, and first shift at Pella’s major employer started at 5:45 a.m.
“That was relatively impossible” for working parents, she said. Many leaned on neighbors to care for their children in the early morning hours.
For Vermeer, a manufacturing company headquartered in Pella with 2,700 employees, the lack of child care options became untenable as the employer tried to recruit and retain workers.
“The constant piece of feedback was, there wasn’t child care available in the area, let alone child care that was flexible based on the needs of employees,” said Rehling, director of the Vermeer Yellow Iron Academy.
The academy — located in a big, red barn near Vermeer’s campus and licensed for 136 children — was born out of a year-long process to provide employees and other Pella families a solution to a dearth of care options.
“This center I don’t believe would have been possible without Vermeer,” Rehling said. “In a small community, it is difficult if they don’t have a company willing to support (child care). The community can rally together to start something, I suppose, but it’s definitely got to be a larger movement in order make something happen.”
While conscientious employers can make a dent, even areas with private business backing can continue to struggle to meet all families’ needs.
“Our center really helped the city advance in child care, and I know have met a significant amount of their child care needs,” Rehling said. “But there definitely is still a need out there. … Just in looking at my waitlist, I have 70 families.”
Indeed, Iowans living in rural areas of the state are twice as likely as their urban and suburban counterparts to face a significant lack of licensed child care spots, according to the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., not-for-profit.
Those finding sustainable solutions often are buoyed by private business. Partnerships between employers and child care providers — such as Bright Horizons’, which operates the Yellow Iron Academy with Vermeer in Pella as well as seven other Iowa centers with employer clients — have won praise from Gov. Kim Reynolds.
“When they’re talking about struggling with workforce, that’s something they should consider doing,” Reynolds said in a meeting with The Gazette editorial board, where she highlighted Vermeer and Lee Container in Centerville as leading employers addressing workers’ needs.
It’s a worthwhile financial investment, Lee Containers President Robert Varnedoe said. His company spends about $50,000 annually on a child care center near its Centerville plastic manufacturing plant. Lee employs about 200 people there, and about 70 percent of them are women.
“Attendance had been an issue, and the bigger issue was just to retain employees — not having them there for three months and then leave,” Varnedoe said. “ … Look at the amount of investment an employer has in an employee in just training. That’s a phenomenal cost to us, if we had to train 10 people on a perpetual basis.”
Once the company purchased a building — a shuttering elementary school it bid on for $170,000 and spent $60,000 renovating — Varnedoe said the company relied on a local child care provider to do the rest.
“My advice would be to look at all the assets that are available in community that may be suitable for a daycare facility — and don’t think you have to be the one to operate it,” Varnedoe said, adding building a facility from scratch would have cost closer to $800,000. “ … People get hung up on the fact that they think they need to operate and run it. That wasn’t strategic for us.”
The Curious Kids center opened in February 2018 with space for 80. About 15 children enrolled are of Lee employees, who pay $1 an hour for care through payroll deductions.
“We didn’t do it just for our Lee Containers employees, it’s also a stewardship investment in the community,” said Varnedoe, whose company is headquartered in Homerville, Ga. “It just appeared to be a real win-win … and some things just feel like the right thing to do.”
In Humboldt County, home to approximately 30 manufacturing companies, the “primary goal was to fill the need as soon as we could,” recalled Alissa O’Connor, director of the Humboldt County Development Association.
A survey conducted in 2016 indicated a future need to provide care for about 200 children. Cost for the project was estimated at nearly $1.8 million.
The county formed a not-for-profit to operate the center, set in an addition to the Mease Elementary School building in Dakota City. The Humboldt Community Day Care board in turn took out a low-interest U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan for $400,000.
Five area entities — the county, Dakota City and the city of Humboldt, the local school district and Humboldt County Memorial Hospital — agreed to make payments on that loan for 20 years.
The board next obtained a commercial loan for $500,000, which is being paid down with existing and incoming pledges.
“The way we funded it,” O’Connor said, “speaks volumes” about the community. It decided, “let’s solve it together.”
Kiddie Kats Child Care and Learning Center opened its doors in June 2018 and today sees 61 children. It has a director and staff of 13 full- and part-time employees.
Each step of the way, O’Conner added, they kept the community “engaged.”
“Outside urban areas, (child care centers) are not extremely profitable,” she said. “You have to get creative.
“We’ve been really, really blessed. It is working.”
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Iowa Ideas magazine editor Michael Chevy Castranova contributed to this report.