The scarcity of affordable child care is a pervasive issue affecting Flathead Valley employees, managers, and business owners.
To address this need, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce launched a task force initiative in February to work with businesses, school districts and churches to improve child care in the region. It’s an effort that, while ongoing, appears to be making progress.
“I think we were headed in that direction, but COVID brought it more dramatically,” said Chamber CEO Lorraine Clarno. “The Flathead is not unique in this situation. Everyone lost a huge amount of home daycare operators when COVID and lockdown hit and we’re trying to get them back into the market.
The chamber has already identified several opportunities to expand access to childcare.
“We are making progress,” Clarno said. “The chamber can’t solve childcare, but we can come together with partners who can, and that’s what we’ve seen happen.”
Gabe Mariman, owner of Bias Brewing, serves as the initiative’s managing director. He says he sees firsthand the impacts of a shortage of childcare.
“And not only do I see it in my business, but I myself distribute to over 60 local restaurants and bars in the Flathead Valley, and I hear the story over and over again,” Mariman said.
Business owners report that their staff cannot find childcare, and when they do, establishment closures mean they cannot find work.
“It’s pretty compelling when you look all these amazing community members in the eye and hear the story over and over and I felt compelled to try and do something about it,” Mariman said. .
The chamber’s action plan to address the childcare shortage is based on multiple surveys and focus group meetings that took place over the past year. In a survey sent to Flathead Valley businesses that had 197 respondents, nearly all “reported child care issues,” according to the action plan.
According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, there are 1,665 licensed child care spaces in Flathead County, which accounts for only 28 percent of children up to age 5.
BEDROOM The task force initiative consists of four teams: Outreach and Advocacy, Home Child Care, Facilities, and a Pipeline Action Team. So far, the facilities team has identified 500 child care spaces that are expected to open within the next 12 months.
Kalispell School District 5 is set to open two child care centers for its employees that will provide 90 spaces, according to the chamber, and other partners working with the chamber to expand facilities include Flathead Valley Community College, Somers Elementary School, Immanuel Lutheran Communities, Epworth United Methodist Church and Lutheran Church of Christ.
“We are also talking to several large developers in the Kalispell area to try and entice them to build suitable childcare facilities as anchor businesses in their mixed-use developments,” Mariman said.
Another avenue explored is to create more space is home daycare.
“We’re working with the Nurturing Center to get the word out to a few moms or dads who may be home with their one or two kids and say, ‘Hey, this is an amazing opportunity and it’s not hard to set up shop and run it as a profitable business,” Clarno said.
While the facility expansion has been a success, Mariman is urging legislative change to reduce the red tape that keeps communities from accessing the care they need. Adding 500 spaces is a step in the right direction, he notes, but it certainly won’t completely solve the problem.
The task force is tackling the workforce pipeline for these new facilities and exploring various scholarship opportunities to encourage students to study early childhood education.
“We learned very quickly that there were mega-currencies out there. There is a lot of money for early childhood education scholarships, but no one is applying. For example, Flathead Electric Cooperative offers a full scholarship for early childhood education, but they haven’t had any takers for a few years,” Clarno lamented.
To publicize these scholarship opportunities, the Pipeline Action Team will encourage existing providers to share the rewarding careers available at local high schools.
“I strongly believe that if people understood that they could get a degree or a certification and go out debt free, we would get more people into the field,” Clarno said.
Another part of the equation is providing decent wages for quality employees.
“Part of the reason the rates are going up is that we’re all giving raises to retain talent,” Mariman said. “The cost of equipment increases as our rents increase. If you can’t find affordable daycare, you can’t go to work. And therefore, you are not in the labor pool.
According to Clarno, every week more and more people are getting involved in the effort.
“Anyone is always welcome at this table and helps us connect the dots and come up with some really innovative solutions,” Clarno said.
“We have to make a change,” she added. “We have to do this because our businesses need it, our families need it and our children need it. They need quality, accessible, loving and caring child care.
Those interested in being part of the working group can contact Lorraine Clarno at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jenn Cronk at email@example.com.