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Child care a key challenge

Hauschild meets with stakeholders, identifies issues during Ely forum


Ely’s child care dilemma was the overriding issue at a roundtable discussion hosted at VCC by State Sen. Grant Hauschild (D-Hermantown).

While community stakeholders talked about an array of issues related to supporting “strong families” during the Nov. 17 event at Vermilion Community College, the child care shortage and its social and economic impacts, as well as efforts to come up with a solution, dominated discussions.

“It’s a struggle for parents,” said Mandy Petersen, an Ely area resident, parent and research scientist who has addressed the child care issue for several years. “Especially for those folks who don’t work regular nine-to-five hours, and it’s tough to be able to find child care in general. I hear conversations in the salon and a lot of times I hear the words ‘hope and pray.’”

Hauschild addressed topics ranging from child care to living wage jobs,  efforts to build more senior housing to improving regional sports facilities during a roughly 90-minute session.

He pointed to child care and other issues related to supporting families as challenges facing the area.

“This is an economic issue,” said Hauschild. “I’ve talked with prospective employers who can’t open up shop or expand here because of the lack of these core things that families are looking for when they move here.”

The meeting was part of Hauschild’s ongoing “Northland Strong” initiative, which involves meetings throughout his Senate district, which stretches from International Falls to Grand Marais to the edges of Duluth.

Several of the roughly 20 roundtable participants in Ely have connections to a major effort to expand child care access in Ely.

Within weeks, construction will begin at the former Minnesota Department of Revenue building in the city’s business park, a facility now owned by the Ely Area Community Foundation and eventually home to a child care center offered by Happy Days Preschool.

Alison Pace is part of that effort and described plans of “transitioning into a full child care center. The plan is to have 46 full-time spots for infants through preschool age and really meet the needs of our community, because child care is dwindling and for infants and toddlers, there’s not much room at all.”

The Happy Days project is part of a major buildout of the former Revenue Building that will include renovations for other tenants and eventual construction of a swimming pool that will be attached to the side of the building, according to EACF president Jeff Sundell.

While the Happy Days project will fill a void, project supporters indicated there remain other challenges - from staffing the facility to broader issues that limit the community’s ability to be an attraction for young families.

“You have to have jobs for young families to be able to come here and set down roots,” said Anne Oelke, superintendent of the Ely schools.

K-12 school enrollment in Ely has dwindled from 930 in the mid-1990s to roughly 540 this year, a time span that  has coincided with Tom Coombe’s tenure with the Ely Echo.

Coombe, who also works as athletic director at the high school, baseball coach at Vermilion and a longtime organizer of summer baseball tournaments said he “wants to see Ely thrive.”

“I really believe when you look at what is here, we are one of the best-kept secrets in rural Minnesota,” said Coombe. “We have a college. We have a hospital. We have an independent school district. We have a thriving arts community and all of the outdoor opportunities.  If you have a kid who plays volleyball, who plays baseball, who skis and you’re looking to move to the Range, you want to be in Ely.”

He also pointed to child care as one of Ely’s major obstacles.

“If families don’t have places to take their kids when they are two, three or four, those families may not be living here when those kids are six, seven and eight and in school,” said Coombe.

Panelists offered specific examples of the child care shortage.

Kathleen Floberg told the group “I experienced firsthand the struggles living in this community and having a small child.”

“I couldn’t find child care so I quit a full-time job with benefits that I loved to open a day care,” said Floberg. “Because that was the only way that my kid could get day care. My wait list for kiddos under five is kind of a joke. It’s really sad how many families are waiting.”

Floberg has joined the Happy Days project and said that despite the demand for child care, “it’s hard to retain people to work in child care and a concern I will have as director so we can serve those 46 spots we will have room for at the center.”

Pace voiced similar concerns and said multiple issues are converging to pose challenges, ranging from child care access to jobs and housing and aging facilities.

“You need all of these pieces to come together at the same time and there’s a lot,” said Pace. “We’re investing all of this time and energy to get this child care going, but what if we have no one to work? All of these pieces need to come together at the same time otherwise I feel five years down the road we’ll be at the same spot.”

Panelists outlined other issues.

Joe Hiller spoke of the city of Ely’s continued obstacles in advancing a market rate housing project.

Efforts to convince a developer to take on the project have been unsuccessful, and the city of Ely’s bid to do the project itself faces its own hurdles - namely that access to a state funding program requires a private developer.

Oelke joked that she had a “whole laundry list” of issues facing the school district, including small enrollments that limit the district’s offerings.

She also noted that recent successful referendum elections “were exponentially metro-based” and that it’s far more difficult to pass referendums in rural areas because of smaller tax bases.

She added that Ely’s recent $20 million-plus improvement project “could not have gotten done without the support of the IRRRB.”

Addressing the child care issue, Oelke said that the Ely district may face a transportation dilemma - needing funds to transport preschool children to a child care center at midday.

Vermilion’s Chris Koivisto said many of the region’s challenges circle back to a lack of living wage jobs.

“The cost of housing is high and the jobs in this area are not always that high paying,” said Koivisto.

Coombe said area lawmakers have done a good job prioritizing infrastructure projects and said that will be pivotal to Ely’s efforts to move forward.

“You need good facilities to attract people,” said Coombe.

Discussion also touched on prenatal and postpartum care for expectant mothers.

Hauschild said he was using the meetings in Ely and elsewhere to develop strategies and priorities for the 2024 legislative session.

“What I’m hearing and I think it’s pretty apparent from other conversations as well is that child care and houisng and mental health are some of the biggest challenges we face,” said Hauschild.

He also reiterated his support for a bonding bill and continued investments in local facilities.

Hauschild represents the largest and most rural district in the state, and he said it’s critical that he focus his outreach and policy work to be most effective for northeastern Minnesota.

The other four priority areas identified by Hauschild are Safe Communities, Outdoor Heritage, Innovative Economy, and A State that Works.  

The fourth roundtable, Outdoor Heritage - Investing in the Northland’s Outdoors, will take place in December on a date and time yet to be determined.

In January, Hauschild plans the fifth roundtable - Innovative Economies - Diversifying the Northland Economy.

Hauschild says the initiative “empowers constituents to have their voices heard and to impact policy goals for our region.”

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