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Amid regional child care crisis, downtown Duluth day care to open in May

Duluth News-Tribune - 1/16/2020

Jan. 16--A day care center is slated to open in downtown Duluth in May.

The center, which will be able to serve 54 children, is expected to primarily serve families with adults who work downtown, owner Shelly Vanneste said. The facility will be a second location for Proctor's Mesabi Preschool Academy.

"No matter how many places I looked at, I just wanted to find something in downtown Duluth," Vanneste said.

The facility will be licensed to take care of six infants, 24 toddlers and 24 preschoolers. But Vanneste said their numbers will likely be lower, as they employ more caretakers than required by the state. Specifically, the state requires one caregiver for every four infants, but she said she plans to have one caregiver for every three infants.

"I'm very passionate about quality child care. And (so) we deliberately keep our numbers lower," Vanneste said.

Duluth's Planning Commission unanimously approved a special-use permit Tuesday for the Wieland Building location, which allows a day care to now operate out of the space. The next day, Vanneste signed a lease.

Adam Fulton, interim director of the city's planning and development division, said the day care "really works well in that location."

"I think this helps point to the overall ongoing increasing level of activity within our downtown. (There's) definitely some synergies in this location between everything we're actually experiencing throughout the HART District," Fulton said.

Aaron Meyering, co-owner of The Electric Fetus downtown, appeared before the Duluth Planning Commission Tuesday night to express his concern about the impact the new neighboring day care could have on customer parking, which has already been a challenge on the block, especially during the reconstruction of Superior Street.

"I guess we'd like to know if there's a plan for evening and morning drop-off locations. Would that be on Superior Street?" he asked.

"The medical building next to us already requires a 300-foot fire lane, where there's no parking. So, off Superior Street would be more favorable for us," Meyering said.

City Planner John Kelley noted the business will be located in a downtown zone that is exempt from city parking requirements.

The special-use permit ensures potential impacts from the day care are considered and align with regulations, he said, like pickup and drop-off locations and the facility's access to recreational opportunities.

When the day care is complete, sometime likely in April, Vanneste said its pickup and drop-off location will be on Michigan Street -- out of the way of busy traffic on Superior Street. Fulton said the street is set up well for a short-term drop-off and pickup location.

A child care crisis

A 2018 report from the Northland Foundation details the extent of the crisis in Northeastern Minnesota. It found that the area needs an additional nearly 4,500 licensed child care to meet demands -- a 50% increase in current licensed day care centers.

"As fewer parents are able to work due to the lack of child care for their children, employers in the region also lose the possibility to hire these potential workers. The reduced workforce could impact productivity of firms and the economic output of the region as a whole," the report reads.

Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council, said she's excited for the downtown community to have a new child care space, as it may make drop-offs and pickups easier for parents. Some parents may also opt to park at work and then walk their children to the facility.

"It's going to be such a benefit for our employees in the downtown area. We know that we have a child care shortage in the community (so) for us to be able to add this in the heart of the downtown community is just a bonus," Stokes said.

The child care crisis factored into Vanneste's decision to open a new location. She said she wants to increase the opportunities in Duluth for children to get curriculum educations.

The day care is leasing the space from Duluth-based A&L Properties. Its vice president, Tiffany Hughes, said they didn't initially envision using the space for child care.

But when they heard what business owner Vanneste wanted to do to the space, Hughes said it was "no brainer."

"We're excited. And I think it'll be a great addition to our buildings downtown and the city as a whole," Hughes said.

Renovations of the space, which was previously used as storage, include constructing walls, restrooms, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and more.

Vanneste has managed the Proctor location for seven years, which said is a benefit as she navigates numerous day care regulations.

"I'm not going to lie, the state is difficult, as far as licensing goes," she said. "After seven years ... I know what they're looking for confidence (in) my ability to meet the needs."

Loans for day care facilities

The Duluth 1200 Fund is offering loans for new day care facilities. Applications opened Wednesday. Apply at 1200fund.com.

Reporter Peter Passi contributed to this story.

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