Daycare Pods have been open for nearly one year, Stevens County hopes to add more

Amid mounting concerns about childcare availability, a new model for daycare opened last summer in Stevens County. The Daycare Pods, as they’ve come to be known, are six independent daycares housed under one roof owned by the county.

Stevens County owns the building and serves as the landlord to six separate providers, but that’s where their involvement ends. The contracts between providers and parents are private, the providers are all independently licensed and have full control over their business. “They are true small businesses,” says County Administrator Rebecca Young, “and small businesses have a large impact on their community.”

Like many other small, rural counties, Stevens County has faced a childcare shortage for several years.

In 2014, Young says the county reached their peak in childcare availability when there were 35 in-home providers in addition to the Morris Area Child Care Center (MACCC). However, soon after, that number plummeted to around 15 to 17, which meant a loss in capacity of about 240. With several providers nearing retirement age, the problem would likely continue growing.

In 2021, Stevens County was awarded $1.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which were to be used for supporting public health response, addressing negative economic impacts, replacing public sector revenue loss, premium pay for essential workers, and water/sewer/broadband infrastructure. Stevens County is fiscally conservative and doesn’t harbor a lot of debt, so Young asked the board of commissioners to consider investing in high-quality childcare to secure the existing supply of childcare and expand it, as well as high-quality early childhood education and care in the community. “I asked them, ‘how serious are you about childcare’,” she added, “and they said we have a once in a lifetime, or generation, opportunity to help shore up the childcare.”

Childcare is the key to economic development in the community, and if workers cannot find it businesses have difficulty expanding and attracting employees.

A subcommittee was appointed, which held three town hall meetings aimed at current providers, parents, and employers. 

Before the pod model was agreed upon, several other options were considered. One was building a new childcare center which would have a high capacity and was relatively quick to get started. However, Young said they changed gears because there is an existing childcare center in Morris, and creating a second would create competition for clients and staffing. 

The committee then stepped back to assess the resources available in the community to move forward. Empty spaces downtown and surrounding areas were considered, but many lacked green space and would have needed extensive renovations to be suitable for their project. 

In Fergus Falls, the school district purchased the building that once housed Target and turned it into an early childhood education center, but there were no empty big box stores in the area for Stevens County to do something similar.

The board was interested in finding a solution to the problem but didn’t want to undermine existing providers in the process, so at this point, $54,000 in grants were awarded to existing providers for upgrades and repairs for their facilities, as well as grants for the MACCC to aid in their expansion. 

With the remaining funds, the subcommittee began working on plans. A daycare center was no longer a plan they wanted to pursue due to commercial construction costs, as well as the expense and difficulty of staffing.

From there, they looked at special family licensing which would put four providers under one roof. This is the true pod model, Young said. Four licensed providers and a large motor play area, with a shared kitchen. With that model, however, the play area would need to be scheduled because the different groups cannot co-mingle, and the kitchen would need to be commercial, which would carry a lot of expense.

The plan did, however, provide a base idea. “What we’re really trying to do,” said Young, “is get more providers in single-family childcare. That’s what parents said they wanted, and studies show that is lower cost to deliver, but is a high-quality delivery model.” The question remained, though, how do they get more providers to open, especially young people with limited financial resources? “We knew there were folks who wanted to get into this profession, but just haven’t been able to make it happen,” Young said, “so we thought, what if we provided the space?”

The county would be the landlords for the space, and not be involved in the individual businesses or licensing. The building would provide several spaces for individual daycares, in turn opening up a high number of childcare spots. During the interview process, the committee heard that it was largely too expensive to open a daycare, and even if a provider could afford a home, it was still too expensive to complete the repairs and renovations to make the home compliant for use as a daycare. One provider wanted to expand their business, but couldn’t at her own home, so the pod model made it possible for her to do that. Many other providers wanted to open a daycare but didn’t want to do it in their own homes. 

The county worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) to accomplish its goals and continued refining the floor plan until it was agreed upon.

Young said it was important to mimic the home environment so each provider could have the business as they would in their own home, and also to qualify for the food program. They landed on a one-bedroom, one full bathroom, and one full kitchen design that accomplished their goal of mimicking the home environment and still allowed them to meet all of the code requirements, and be American Disability Act (ADA) compliant while remaining fully self-contained. 

The design is an attractive model to new and young providers. The buildings are already up to code with no repairs needed, and it has the added benefit of a community of providers to report to work with.

The pods give providers the ability to report to and from work, rather than living in their workspace full time. Provider Jade Michaelson said she enjoys being able to come to work daily and also values the camaraderie that comes with being near other providers. 

Young added that this project was a large experiment and the floor plans reflect that as well. If this project didn’t find success with daycare providers, or if its use as individual daycares ever becomes obsolete, it can be used as duplexes or senior housing. 

With any experimental project, there could come with it some less-than-ideal aspects. Provider Jaelene Todd says a second bedroom would be beneficial for use as an office space. The one bedroom is used for naps, so when a child is napping it isn’t available for any other use. She added that more storage space would have been useful. “More thought should have been put into how this needed to be built since it was being built for daycares, and kids are ruthless,” she added. However, overall, Todd says she absolutely loves having this space to run her daycare out of and having this space makes her life much easier. Since this first build is an experiment, she hopes her comments can be taken into consideration with any future builds.

The final pod building houses six pods, and immediately upon advertising, five applications were received. Shortly after, three more applications for the final spot came in. “That was a difficult choice,” Young said, “they would have all been new providers.”

By January of 2024, one provider moved away, so a new spot became available. Quickly, four applications were submitted, and three went through with interviews. All three were new providers, and Young said again that it was a difficult decision.

Now that the pods have been operating for nearly a year with success, the consideration to build more is on the table. 

At the onset of the project, about 220 childcare spots were estimated to be needed, and now there is a need for about 110. This is positive news, but it still speaks to the need for more childcare in Stevens County. 

Several local businesses are looking to begin expansion which will increase the need for more childcare.

With the growing Latino community in Stevens County, Young says they’ve wanted to recruit a culturally sensitive provider, but have thus far been unsuccessful.

Private citizens have contributed to constructing more pods, but much more robust funding will be needed.

Now that the model has been shown to work, Young says she’s hopeful that some of the local employers will be willing to invest. Many people leave jobs due to lack of adequate childcare, so helping secure more childcare in the area will help their recruiting and retention efforts.

An employer could even secure spots in a pod, which would make their business an attractive place to work. They could even go so far as to secure an entire pod for their employees and hire their own provider to staff it. It would be attractive to prospective employees, and also an attractive option for a provider to be on the company’s payroll and benefit package. 

The county has 3.14 acres on the old elementary school property, and another 14 units could be constructed on that property. If they could raise the funds for a new building, it would likely be cheaper than retrofitting an existing building. When it comes to replicating the pods, they don’t want it to be a burden to taxpayers, so they are looking for fundraising and grant opportunities to get it done.

“We were fortunate in Stevens County that the board of commissioners made such a large commitment. They spent 65% of their ARPA dollars on early childhood education, either by creating new spots or supporting existing providers in the community. A lot of communities took the funds and used them on themselves, and that’s fine, that’s a business decision, but our board wanted to make this a generational investment.”