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Kalispell chamber collaborates to address childcare shortage

by SUMMER ZALESKY Daily Inter Lake
| August 7, 2022 12:00 AM

The scarcity of affordable childcare is a pervasive problem that impacts employees, managers and business owners in the Flathead Valley.

To address the need, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce launched a task force initiative in February looking to collaborate with businesses, school districts and churches to improve child care in the area. It’s an effort that, while ongoing, appears to be making some gains.

“I think that we were heading in that direction, but COVID brought it on more dramatically,” said Lorraine Clarno, CEO of the chamber. “The Flathead isn’t unique in this situation. Everyone lost a tremendous amount of in-home daycare operators when COVID and the lockdown hit and we're trying to get them back out into the market.”

Already the chamber has identified several opportunities to expand access to childcare.

“We're making progress,” Clarno said. “The chamber can't solve childcare, but we can convene with partners who can, and that's what we've seen happening.”

Gabe Mariman, who owns Bias Brewing, acts as the overall director of the initiative. He says he sees firsthand the impacts from a shortage of childcare.

“And not only do I see it in my business, but I self 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 can’t find child care, and when they do, closures of facilities mean they can’t make it into work.

“It's pretty compelling when you're looking all of these amazing community members in the eyes and hearing the story over and over again and I just felt compelled to try and do something about it,” Mariman said.

The chamber’s action plan to address child care scarcity is based on multiple surveys and focus group meetings that took place last year. In a survey sent to Flathead Valley businesses that had 197 respondents, almost all “reported child care related problems,” according to the action plan.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, there are 1,665 licensed child care slots in Flathead County, which account for only 28% of children up to age 5.

THE CHAMBER’S task force initiative comprises four teams: outreach and advocacy, home childcare, facilities, and a pipeline action team. So far, the facilities team has identified 500 spaces in child care centers which are expected to open within the next 12 months.

Kalispell’s School District 5 is expected to open two childcare facilities for their employees that will provide 90 spots, 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 Christ Lutheran Church.

“We’re also talking to several large developers in the Kalispell area to try and entice them to build to suit childcare facilities as anchor businesses in their mixed-use developments,” Mariman said.

Another avenue being explored is to create more space is in-home daycare.

“We’re working with the Nurturing Center to get the word out to a few moms or dads that may be home with their one or two children and say, ‘Hey, this is an incredible opportunity and it's not hard to get set up and run it as a profitable business,’” Clarno said.

While expansion of facilities has been a success, Mariman urges for change at a legislative level to cut through the red tape that keeps communities from the care they need. Adding 500 spaces is a step in the right direction, he notes, but it's certainly not going to fully address the issue.

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 is mega money out there. There is lots of money for early childhood education scholarships, but no one is enrolling. For example, Flathead Electric Cooperative offers a full ride scholarship for early childhood education, but they haven't had any takers in a few years,” Clarno lamented.

To spread awareness on these scholarship opportunities, the pipeline action team will encourage existing providers to share about the rewarding careers available in local high schools.

“I strongly believe that if people understood that they could get a degree or certification and come out with no debt that we would be getting more people into the field,” Clarno said.

Another part of the equation is to offer sufficient wages to quality employees.

“Part of the reason why rates are going up is that we're all giving raises to retain talent,” Marimansaid. “The cost of material is going up at the same time that our rents are going up. If you cannot find affordable child care, you can't go to work. And therefore, you're not in the labor pool.”

According to Clarno, each week more people reach out to be involved in the effort.

“Anyone and everyone is still welcome to be at this table and help us connect the dots and get really innovative in solutions,” Clarno said.

“We've got to make a change,” she added. “We've got to do this because our businesses need it, our families need it, and our kids need it. They need quality, accessible, loving, and caring childcare.”

Those who are interested in serving on the task force can contact Lorraine Clarno at l.clarno@kalispellchamber.com or Jenn Cronk at j.cronk@kalispellchamber.com.

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