Publicly built child care center is feasible, but maybe not at downtown location

Feasibility study shows building would cost $5 million, but it could have $1.5 million economic benefit each year

Melinda Mass, executive director at Heritage Park Preschool, sits with children as they eat a snack in this archive photo. Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

While feasible, a publicly built child care center on land where Routt County is building a new Health and Human Services building may not be the best idea.

Depending on its configuration, a child care center could accommodate as many as 74 children with an emphasis on infant and toddler care, which is particularly short locally. But it would also need to be squeezed into the downtown Steamboat Springs site, where space for outdoor playgrounds and parking is limited.

“I’m concerned we’re trying to put 15 pounds into a 10-pound bag,” Routt County Commissioner Tim Redmond said Tuesday, Feb. 22. “There’s a possibility that we could make that site work, but I will admit is seems awfully tight.”

The feasibility study is a joint venture between Routt County and Steamboat Springs to explore if land the county owns at the corner of Sixth and Oak Streets could accommodate a child care facility, what a potential facility would offer and how much it might cost.

Conducted by the nonprofit Colorado Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC, the study found a center would cost almost $5 million to start up, a number Commissioner TIm Corrigan said the city and county should be able to come up with.

In the preferred configuration, the center would need between $80,000 and $240,000 a year in additional funding to operate, depending on whether it is run by the city or a private entity.

But the study also estimates that the lack of child care locally is costing Routt County’s economy nearly $10 million a year and that child care centers have about a seven-fold return on investment. A center meeting just 15% of the county’s child care need could have an economic benefit of about $1.5 million annually, the study found.

“We did a feasibility study to figure out if it was feasible, right? And we found out it is technically speaking, and maybe this is not the best idea,” said Commissioner Beth Melton. “What I am encouraged by is we have some operating scenarios that honestly feel within reach.”

Work on the new Routt County Health and Human Services building will continue through the winter. While the site could house a new child care center, county commissioners have said that might not be the best place for it.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The options

The study specifically explored adding a child care center to the same property where the county is currently building a new $14 million Health and Human Services building.

There is about 5,000 square feet currently planned for parking that the center could be built on, and another nearly 3,000 square feet of space that could be used for outdoor playgrounds.

In that space, the study proposes a two-story center with six classrooms, restrooms, administrative space, laundry and storage. Outside there is room for two playgrounds — one for infants and toddlers and another for preschoolers — along the west side of the building.

Parking is another hurdle. Based on city regulations, the center would need 49 parking spots, far more than the site could accommodate, so a variance would be needed. Steph Itelman, one of the consultants with EPIC, said the center realistically would still need about 30 spots to accommodate staff and parents.

Melton said the parking requirements don’t scare her away from the project at all, feeling that the problem is with the regulation and not the project. Still, she recognized that the space doesn’t seem ideal.

“It sounds like our design team is having that same feeling, that they are supportive of the concept of the project, but it just feels like a little too much for the site,” Melton said.

What ages?

The study outlines three scenarios for what ages could be served by the center.

The option preferred by consultants would have two infant rooms, two toddler rooms for children 12 to 36 months old, one toddler room for 24 to 36 months old, and another mixed age classroom with children as old as 6.

This option is preferred because 54 of the 74 spots created would be targeted at infants and toddlers, but it still offers care throughout early childhood.

Another scenario organized the center in a more traditional way with one classroom at each age level, and a third scenario prioritized infant and toddler care completely, not offering care for children older than 36 months.

Assuming the center is operated by the city, the traditional model would be the only one that could sustain itself financially, producing an estimated $70,000 above expenses. The preferred option would cost about $82,000 a year more than it would bring in, and the option focused solely on younger children would need about $220,000 in funding each year to operate.

All of those cost figures would increase if the center were operated by a private entity, though costs to maintenance or human resources departments are not factored in under the public operator model.

Commissioner Tim Corrigan said that the city and county should have the capacity to build a $5 million building and that even the larger operating costs seemed reasonable.

“If someone came forward with a proposal today that said, ‘Hey, city and county, if you guys can collectively guarantee $100,000 or $150,000 a year subsidy to provide spaces for 74 children,’ it’s not that hard of a question to answer yes.” Corrigan said.

If not there, where?

Corrigan said the positives with the downtown location are that the county already owns the land, it would be convenient to use for city and county employees, and it has good access to public transit.

But there would need to be adjustments to designs for the new building the county is currently constructing, and those costs haven’t been factored in. Corrigan said he didn’t feel the benefits outweighed the cost of trying to find another place to build a child care center.

The county doesn’t own much land in Steamboat other than its downtown campus, but Melton said the city has more options. County Manager Jay Harrington said there have been some early discussions with the city about other potential locations.

Harrington said another potential piece of land that has been talked about is where the Steamboat Springs School District has its district offices on Seventh Street. There hasn’t been a public conversation with the district at this point, but school board members have indicated they want to help with the child care and housing shortages that affect the schools’ ability to hire as well.

Some have pointed to the Brown Ranch property, saying that there will be space to build a child care center out there.

“We just talked about a facility of this size (74 spots) only filling 15% of the existing need,” Melton said. “We will need more than one (child care center) is the short version of that story.”

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