The value of a regional overview for developing child care

By Marnie Werner, Vice President, Research & Operations

Click here to read the main article, “Rural Child Care Solutions: From the Ground Up.”

One factor that has been helpful in the rural childcare arena is the involvement of organizations with a regional perspective, operating in a wider area than a county but more focused—with greater local knowledge—than the state level. This view gives them certain resources and skills, the most powerful of which may be to act as a bridge connecting the many interests involved, establishing trust in an issue that will require the whole community to solve.

The other resources they can offer that local stakeholders—local government, individual providers, families—don’t have can help to fill gaps that may be too big for organizations at the local level to tackle but too small for the state to deal with. For communities separated by large distances, this ability to oversee an entire region is important.

First Children’s Finance is a national organization that works with communities to find solutions to their childcare and early childhood education needs. In Minnesota, FCF works in three areas: coaching individual providers, advocating and educating on issues at the state level, and helping communities develop solutions for their own unique childcare needs through their Rural Child Care Innovation Program.

Several Minnesota communities have been through the two-year RCCIP program or are going through it now, working to identify their childcare needs and the community’s unique assets through surveys and events. Communities need this very specific information to help them develop “right-sized” solutions that fit their needs, since no one solution will fit every town, say Teri Steckelberg and Jessica Beyer, the regional business development managers for Greater Minnesota.

FCF also offers a smaller, quicker program called the Community Strategic Supply Plan, where FCF helps communities identify where to focus their efforts, set goals, then develop the action steps to address those goals.

“Everyone has a childcare need and challenge, but every community has different assets,” says Beyer. Their goal is to find solutions that are right for that community.

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Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation

IRRR, a state agency located in northeastern Minnesota is a good example of an entity that can bring partners and resources to the table. IRRR contributes to local economic development in northeastern Minnesota through loans and grants, and child care has been a special focus in recent years. 

“Our agency is committed to supporting the growth of quality child care in the region because child care is deeply connected to our economy, our employers and businesses, our communities, families and the overall quality of life,” says IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips. “Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation seeks to help solve the shortage in northeastern Minnesota by providing financial assistance to eligible communities to expand existing child care facilities and programs or start up new ones.”

In recent years, IRRR has helped support a combination child care center/preschool/senior center in the city of Cohasset; helped with expanding Bois Forte Band of Chippewa’s Head Start and Early Head Start facility; provided scholarships for center workers to become credentialed Child Development Associates while still working at area centers, including 20 high school students and community members; helped the Cook County Community YMCA in Grand Marais adjacent to the K-12 Cook County school campus add 33 new child care slots, increasing capacity from 42 to 75 children; and helped various providers with new construction, renovations and retrofits through their Commercial Redevelopment, Business Energy Retrofit, and Community Infrastructure grants.

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Minnesota Initiative Foundations

The Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs) have been involved in many childcare projects around the state for years, acting as regional hubs in a network of organizations offering resources, so that no matter what door a community or an individual provider enters by, someone is there to get them to the right resources, says Zane Bail, chief operating officer at the Northland Foundation in Duluth, to “interconnect, maximize resources, and minimize duplication.”

In recent years MIFs have acted as pass-throughs for funding from the state to support childcare providers, beginning with child care development grants from the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development, and recently during COVID, money from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) for providers in addition to the state’s emergency grants, which were administered by Child Care Aware Minnesota, the state’s childcare quality rating organization. MIFs also help providers access required training, coaching, technical assistance, and connections to other organizations that offer similar services.

For example, the Southwest Initiative Foundation pays for an architect to inspect a building being considered for child care, something a provider might not be able to afford to determine how much renovation work would be needed to make it licensable. “We do not want an entrepreneur or a community to get in over their heads in a building that is not feasible,” says Scott Marquardt, SWIF, “so we invest upfront in [that inspection]. Dream big but be grounded in data.”

MIF staff have several pieces of advice for communities looking for solutions:

  • Bring everyone to the table. Include critical stakeholders: not just providers and families, but also local government, schools, churches/faith communities, nonprofits, and especially employers. “That’s why I love to bring [childcare] into an economic development context: because it brings the unusual suspects to the table,” says the Initiative Foundation’s Don Hickman.
  • Find your champions. “I think the important lesson I have learned is that a group of leaders that won’t give up can create a solution and make it happen,” says Missy Okeson, program officer at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation in Bemidji. “Fosston developed a task force with a group of community leaders that used teamwork, gave a lot of hard work and time, utilized volunteer efforts and after jumping through a million hoops, they are opening a child care center … debt free due to grants, donations, and volunteers.”
  • Know the makeup of childcare in your community. How big is the childcare gap in your community? What’s your mix of FCC and CCC right now and what do you need? What kind of industries do you have, and how do they affect what kind of child care you need and when?
  • Use a facilitator who understands the issue and the data. Knowing the data is important for aiming at the right solution, but you also don’t want to unintentionally create an economic environment that disadvantages providers or families.
  • Communicate before it becomes a crisis. Providers on the verge of closing need to tell someone before it’s too late, says Marquardt. “Providers and economic development folks have to talk to each other,” so that if the provider is falling on tough times or simply decides it’s time to close, the community has some warning and can help or prepare.
  • Be willing to make three-digit investments. Foundations, government, and non-governmental organizations can make investments in local childcare that are small for them but can make a big difference for a provider on a lean budget. “It doesn’t need a comma to be impactful,” says Marquardt. “Some of the most beautiful, powerful things we’ve done have been $500, $600 bucks. Every slot is worth it.”
  • Look at childcare as part of your larger community development plans. Look for opportunities where childcare and redevelopment can merge. Childcare could be part of redevelopment around an old school or old hospital, says Marquardt.

Contacts for the individual Initiative Foundations can be found at: