Routt County, Steamboat mulling addition of child care facility on site of future HHS building

Current child care capacity in Routt County meets just 17% of need for infants and toddlers

Jimiann Murphy, an assistant teacher at the Discovery Learning Center, reads a book to her students. Currently, Routt County only has enough child care spots to serve 17% of infants and toddlers whose parents both work. (File)

There are a little more than 1,500 children age 5 or younger living in Routt County. Most of them — 4 out of 5 — have parents that both work, making child care a necessity. But there are only enough services for about 60% of them.

The problem is worse when considering infant and toddler care. With about 550 children age 3 or younger in the county whose parents work, there are only 94 spots available for licensed child care, according to data from First Impressions Early Childhood Council. That means only 17% of the need is met for those age 3 and younger.

In practice, not all licensed providers are open to families, and some may have as few as half of the spots available in an effort to lower the ratio between children and care providers.

“Keeping young families in our county is so important,” said Irene Avitia, early childhood education specialist for Integrated Community. “Families that I’ve talked to, they moved because of the high cost of child care and accessibility. It is almost impossible to find child care right now.”

Local leaders have been probing for ways to increase overall child care and accessibility to it for years. When designing the new Health and Human Services building in Steamboat, about 3,000 square feet of space was set aside for a potential child care facility. In a joint meeting last month, Steamboat Springs City Council signaled interest in exploring further what the building could look like.

“The pandemic really highlighted (the child care shortage) for people in a way that some of us already knew,” said Commissioner Beth Melton, who added that working to improve child care locally is a significant reason why she is a commissioner. “When people don’t have child care, our economy doesn’t work.”

Commissioners Tuesday requested a grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, to be matched by the county and city, for a feasibility study to explore the possibility of a child care facility.

“Between the federal stimulus and the state stimulus dollars that are flowing into the state’s recovery, there is just a lot of opportunity,” said Winnie DelliQuadri, intergovernmental services manager for the city of Steamboat, who put together the letter seeking the DOLA grant. “Child care is a barrier to getting people back to work.”

Melton said she is pretty certain the center will be built, but the feasibility study is needed first to figure out the details of the center, such as what types of children it can serve and how many.

Ideally, the new center would focus on infant and toddler care, but that likely wouldn’t be self-sustaining. Some estimates show a need for the county to contribute about $100,000 per year to keep it going, Melton said. Care for older children is simply more profitable, and Melton said most places are using profits from caring for those 3 and older to subsidize infant and toddler care.

Melton said even if the current commissioners opted to subsidize the child care center, future elected officials might feel differently.

“It is never a good practice to strap future elected officials with costs because then they just pull the rug out when they feel like they cannot afford it anymore,” Melton said.

One complicating factor could be outdoor playground requirements, which are different for each age group. If limited to infant and toddler care, there is enough space for playground requirements. But if the center needs to care for older children as well to boost overall profits, space for another playground may be limited.

While not yet certain, Melton said she is confident the center will become a reality — there are just a lot of moving parts to it, which is why the new Health and Human Services building project and child care center are separate projects.

The downtown location would also help increase accessibility because of the proximity both to a place where a lot of people work and to several bus lines.

“There is so much still to discover,” Avitia said. “The idea is there, but I think once this feasibility study is done, we will have more of the bigger picture and the details about what this will look like.”

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