Submitted by the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce

Opportunity Council and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce have joined forces to open the new Northwest Center for Child Care Retention & Expansion. The Center will provide business technical assistance, coaching, feasibility studies and planning to existing and would-be providers of child care, local businesses and policy-makers to assure the local child care market does not contract further and, as soon as possible, expands. Through support from the Washington Department of Commerce, North Sound ACH (Accountable Community of Health) and various philanthropic organizations, the Center will also award grants to providers of care to retain the market and stimulate its growth. Five areas of focus for the Center will be:

  • Stabilizing the child care market after the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Retaining child care businesses and non-profit operations when “natural transitions” are set to occur, such as provider retirements or situations like the recent sale of Kids World in Bellingham, a large multi-site provider
  • Starting up new child care enterprises, including those financed in part by local companies or co-ops of local companies
  • Expanding existing child care businesses and non-profit operations
  • Routinely incorporating licensable child care spaces into new housing and commercial developments and altering local, state and federal regulations that pose barriers to child care market retention and expansion

“The Center has one very big goal: help parents, especially those comprising local companies’ workforces, have more quality care options for their children, whether it’s near their home or place of employment,” said Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce President/CEO, Guy Occhiogrosso. “Quality child care supports employers and business today and is also a long-term economic benefit resulting in an even greater educated future workforce.”

The Center was being designed even before the Coronavirus pandemic rattled residents’ and businesses’ lives. A soft opening for the Center occurred in early August. The Center’s staff, all Opportunity Council employees, will be located at the Chamber’s office in downtown Bellingham.

“Many forces have contributed to our area being designated a ‘child care desert,’” said Greg Winter, Opportunity Council’s Executive Director. “We have every expectation that the new Center’s tools and staff expertise are going to help address those forces and create a competitive edge for our communities.”

“Part of the solution must also be recognizing the vital brain and social-emotional development importance of quality care in children’s lives. We have to do better as a society at compensating those who make it their passion and livelihood,” Winter underscored. “There is an economic justice and gender equity dimension to this initiative,” he said, noting that studies have shown that a lack of child care most often negatively impacts the careers of women, and the provider community is, at present, dominated by female workers and business owners, including a growing number owned by persons of color.

Opportunity Council’s Department of Early Learning & Family Services, which will manage the new Center, is in its 55thyear of operations and offers comprehensive services to families with young children.

Washington State Department of Commerce invested $500,000 in the new Center to help fund the child care provider grants and support staffing.

“Thousands of parents in Washington were either paying more than they could afford, or struggling to find quality child care near where they live or work before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only added to the problem,” said Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “We’re pleased to support collaborative efforts such as this one that address the multi-faceted approach that must be part of long-term solutions to our state’s child care capacity challenges.”

Addressing the economic impact, Brown quoted a recent industry assessment report from the state Child care Collaborative Task Force that showed one in five parents surveyed had turned down a job offer or promotion due to child care issues, and more than half a million children throughout the state have no access to licensed child care.

Looking “upstream” at what impacts health, North Sound ACH saw an opportunity to support children and young families, recognizing that our ability to meet early, developmental needs has an impact across the lifespan. Liz Baxter, CEO of North Sound ACH, stated “our commitment to equity, wellbeing and belonging forces us to look at those most in need. Investing in child care capacity and workforce development will have a tremendous impact across the region for decades to come.”

Whatcom County and the northwest region of the state are not alone in wrestling with the child care capacity dilemma. Opportunity Council is the northwest regional coordinating organization for Child Care Aware (CCA), part of a statewide and national network of entities working on child care issues, including quality and access.

“CCA of Washington has had the pleasure of working in partnership with the Opportunity Council for the past 30-plus years. Their consistent commitment to innovation in programming has resulted in learning that has seeded other regional work across the state. I know that we will learn much from the experiences of the center and that it will provide an important blueprint for supporting child care retention and expansion,” said Deeann Burtch Puffert, CCA of WA’s CEO.

The local Center will have an interdisciplinary council of advisors, work collaboratively with higher education, workforce development and local business associations among others. Its staff brings international corporation project management and child care business ownership experiences to the table.

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