YMCA to open new childcare facility; will more than double current capacity
By Lori Adler, reporter
The YMCA of the Northwoods is in the beginning stages of purchasing the old South Park School on Pelham Street in Rhinelander. Once the purchase is complete, the building would become a childcare facility, replacing the current one and more than double the capacity. It would provide Rhinelander with a significant increase in what YMCA CEO Ryan Zietlow said will be affordable childcare.
Though only halfway through the purchase process of the building, Zietlow is confident the new centrally located facility will help fill a vital need for the community. In addition to being a much larger space than the current YMCA childcare center, the building features a full gymnasium that can be used to teach gross motor skills to children as well as offer a place for recitals and performances. Due to its size, the building may also be used to house some additional YMCA programming.
“It’s really early in our process, but things are coming along very well, and we’re excited to be able to put this together for our community,” Zietlow said.
The need for additional childcare in Rhinelander was recognized in 2018 when the YMCA participated in a strategic planning process with board and community members. The group wanted to determine the needs of the community and ways in which the YMCA could help. An extensive community needs survey was conducted, and affordable childcare topped the list of results. Knowing that high quality childcare is an important part of youth development, the YMCA committed to making accessibility and affordability of childcare a top priority.
“Strong childcare lends strong communities and strong economic development,” Zietlow said. “The lack of accessibility and affordability in childcare really hinders parents’ and families’ ability to enter into the work force and grow what we’re looking at as being a strong Rhinelander community and a strong Northwoods community.”
According to Zietlow, a nationwide survey conducted in 2016 revealed that more than two million parents made career sacrifices due to problems in finding childcare. In addition, the lack of productivity and revenue for businesses and lost wages for employees because of childcare issues resulted in a nationwide loss of over $57 billion.
Zietlow refers to the current childcare situation as a crisis, explaining that, in northern Wisconsin and across the country, the issue is creating a work force shortage. Simply put, businesses need employees, and employees need childcare.
“If we don’t have childcare, we have fewer employees. If we have fewer employees, we have fewer businesses. And if we have fewer businesses, we have less strength in our community,” he said.
To make matters worse, the entire Northwoods is considered to be a “childcare desert,” which is defined as an area that has less than one spot of quality childcare for every three child under the age of five. In the Rhinelander area, almost all of the approximately 150 quality childcare spots are taken, with most every provider at or nearly at capacity.
One of the main reasons for so few childcare facilities is the cost. Zietlow states that childcare is not an overly profitable business, with the biggest cost being staff. Yet staff not being well paid leads to childcare workers leaving the industry, which in turn creates a shortage. This lack of workers makes offering the critical age group needed by parents even more difficult. Children aged birth to two years quickly fill these premium spots in childcare facilities. This is because state regulations require one childcare worker for every four children in this age group due to the needs of infants and toddlers.
Zietlow noted that finding a balance between wages and other benefits (such as tuition reimbursement) are the keys to attracting and retaining childcare workers, but he also explains that raising wages for childcare workers will only lead to an increase in operating costs for centers which will ultimately impact what families pay.
While cost is an important concern for childcare centers, it is of utmost importance with families. Childcare costs are on the rise, causing many parents to drop out of the work force simply because childcare is too expensive. In northern Wisconsin for example, childcare for a three-month-old infant will cost families about $200 per week. This means a family with two children can expect to spend $1,500 or more per month for childcare.
Zietlow said that affordable childcare is a complicated issue, requiring local, state and federal approaches to the problem with a priority placed on public policy recognizing both the importance of early childhood education as well as affordability. In addition, he added, communities need to work together to create a better situation for working families.
“If we’re going to change the childcare crisis that we have in our communities and across the country, there’s got to be various layers of action in order to correct this.”
One way the YMCA is looking to address the affordability issue is to partner with various businesses in order to provide subsidies to families.
“We are actively exploring how we can provide subsidies to our childcare families. We know that childcare is expensive, and it can be unaffordable for many families. With that, we are also very aware of the current work force shortage, and we are going to begin to look at engaging with business and industry to start looking at how employee benefit packages can attract and retain those in the work force in the Northwoods. How can we be more competitive by offering childcare subsidies as part of total employee benefit packages? What if we work with them to subsidize childcare costs? Can we be more marketable in the Northwoods? Can we be more competitive with communities that are around us?
“Let’s drive more high-quality talent in the Northwoods by offering benefit packages that help to offset some of the burdens that families have,” Zietlow said.
If everything proceeds as planned, the new childcare center is expected to open in late spring or early summer of 2020, providing the area with more than 60 additional childcare spots.
Passionate about the mission of the YMCA and excited about how the new childcare center benefits Rhinelander, Zietlow added, “I love the work the Y is in. It’s one of the most impactful organizations I see in our community with the ability to reach a large scope of varied demographics throughout the Northwoods. And through our work, the promise of strengthening the foundations of the community really comes out in what we do. And the more that we can get rid of the notion that we’re just a gym and a swim, that we’re really a resource for all those in our community, the more success we all will have.”