Plans for a nonprofit daycare center in Great Bend continue. Completion of a facility on land south of the 10th Street intersection with K-96 is about a year away but the hope is to break ground this summer, according to Sara Arnberger, president of Great Bend Economic Development Inc.
“If all goes according to plan, then we will start teaching children in spring 2024,” Arnberger said Wednesday, speaking at the Great Bend Kiwanis Club meeting at Walnut Bowl.
Members of a subgroup under Economic Development called Advancing Barton County Childcare (ABCC) have been working on the issue for more than a year. “They’ve all worked so tirelessly to put this all into motion and we’re finally getting to a place where you’re going to see results very soon,” she said.
Arnberger said Barton County is in a “childcare desert,” making it hard for people to find daycare. Two parents in the audience shared their own difficulties in finding service.
“But the question I get asked all the time is, ‘how on earth does that relate to economic development in any way?’” Arnberger said. The Eco Devo staff didn’t see the connection at first but multiple employers let them know that the childcare shortage is creating a problem in recruiting and retaining people. Some employees had to quit their jobs to stay home with their children or they went to work somewhere else.
“We had enough of those conversations that we finally said, ‘Okay, we have to be a part of the solution to this.’ So we worked tirelessly over about a year’s time frame to do tons of research,” she said.
Talking to groups in other communities that have tried similar things, they quickly leaned that childcare does not yield major profits. They needed to find a business model that would at least make a daycare center sustainable.
“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t in a bind every year where we were going to have to come up with grant funds or go out to the community to fundraise, etc., etc.,” she said. That is how the ABCC group was formed. She describes it as a partnership through Economic Development. ABCC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with its own board made up of partners from Great Bend USD 428, Barton Community College, Barton County, the City of Great Bend, and some of the area’s top employers: Fuller Industries, the University of Kansas Health System, Clara Barton Medical Center, Superior Essex, and some existing childcare providers. Contacts among the latter included the head of the Barton Community College Child Development Center and the head of the GPS Kids Center in Hoisington.
“We’ve got a very vast group, they’ve got a wide array of knowledge, and they’ve all worked so tirelessly to put this all into motion,” she said.
What is the need?
When the ABCC started raising funds, research showed 1,502 children in Barton County needing daycare and after filling all available slots they were left with 705 children without daycare.
“If we were able to fill those 705 spots, then we would be able to create 144 new full-time equivalent jobs and we would be able to put approximately 223 people back into the workforce,” she said. “That’s huge for our community. We have over 500 jobs that are available now. So, if we’re able to put half of those back into the workforce, that’s a pretty incredible impact that childcare can do for us. That’s why we really jumped into this.”
The first location
ABCC has purchased land at the Farmer’s Plaza, a strategic location behind the former Stutzman’s location at 10th and K-96.
“We’re not taking the 10th Street frontage,” she said. “We’re back off the street.” From her standpoint as Economic Development president, Arnberger sees the site as a centralized location for the first childcare center that may also spark development toward the west side of Great Bend.
“We’re really excited to say that we will bring high quality childcare,” she said. “We’re going to do it at the most affordable price that we can.”
The board has had conversations with employers that will be willing to offer subsidies for the employees. There are also state initiatives that will help with the costs.
Based on current regulations and building plans, the first daycare center will be limited to 59 children. “There’s legislation happening right now that might change that number,” she said. “So we are building the facility for a maximum capacity of 84 if the regulations change.”
Future facilities in other communities will be similar in size if that continues to be the best model for creating a center that can operate at a profit, albeit a modest one, making each center self-sustaining.
With so much need for service in Barton County, Arnberger stressed that this center will not be competition to existing daycare providers.
“Because of the vast array of knowledge we have in our group, we are really hoping to provide them with opportunities for assistance with grant writing and extra funds for substitute teaching when they need to take vacations or whatever those needs might be. So again, the goal is just to bolster what’s already here and then continue that growth.”
The next steps
The board is taking applications for a childcare director. Meanwhile, GMLV Architects in Wichita has done preliminary designs and the board put out bids last week for a Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) to run the project. Two applicants have already submitted bids and Arnberger said she’s heard from several other construction companies that want to be part of the project. There are still a couple of weeks in which companies can submit bids.
People are already asking how they can sign up for waiting lists but Arnberger said that will be a decision for the future director.
Arnberger has a 154-page manual of regulations for constructing and operating a daycare center. There are square footage requirements and staffing requirements that vary with the age and number of children.
“There has to be a certain number of toilets at a certain height and so on. So yes, there are many regulations and we have to make sure we’re meeting all of those. Luckily, we’ve got a great architect that’s working closely on our behalf to make sure that those are all in the design.” The CMAR will also be experienced in childcare facilities, she said.
ABBC is also working with Great Bend USD 428 to provide food delivery when school is in session. They are looking for other partners to handle food delivery at other times. “That enables us to only have a prep kitchen instead of a full kitchen and kitchen staff.”
What about after 5 p.m.?
Audience members also wanted to know if daycare service will be available after 5 p.m. Unfortunately, the initial answer is no.
“We’ve talked about regulations and I have alluded to the intricacies involved in those regulations,” she said. “One of the major goals going into this was we really wanted to be able to provide 24-hour care. We’ve got plenty of industries in our community that are shiftwork industries, so we know the need is there. We’re still determined to meet that but we can’t meet that with our first center.” While “there would be absolutely no way for us to make it sustainable” at this time, Arnberger said expanded service is not off the table for future projects.