MJCC again floats plan for childcare in Vergennes

VERGENNES — Mary Johnson Children’s Center, which has long been established in Middlebury and has operated summer programs in Vergennes and elsewhere in the county, is once again working toward building a childcare center in the Little City.
Mary Johnson’s goal, said Co-director Barbara Saunders, is what Mary Johnson officials believe is a badly needed Vergennes childcare center to serve 30 preschoolers, one that would be built on a 1.5-acre Armory Lane lot near the city’s three-year-old senior center.
When the senior center was built on land bought almost a decade ago by Housing Vermont, Mary Johnson retained an option to buy a portion of that 11.93-acre parcel. As far back as 2008, a Housing Vermont official told the Independent that a Mary Johnson childcare center was “expected to be the second phase on the ground” once senior housing was built.
Funding has always been the issue, and although Saunders said it remains an obstacle, now she is hopeful.
Mary Johnson’s first move, she said, will be to obtain a $30,000 Community Development Block Planning Grant from the Vermont Community Development Program.
Last week, the Vergennes City Council agreed to hold a required public hearing on that grant application at its June 9 meeting. If aldermen then agree to sign off on that application, Mary Johnson can in August apply for the grant.
“We are looking at a planning grant, which is the first step, which would give us the financial resources to go in depth to look at what a building might actually look like on the piece of land,” Saunders said.
Mary Johnson officials have some reason to believe they might be awarded that grant in October. They would then spend the winter using the funds to come up with an appropriate building and site design to serve 30 children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years.
Then would come another block grant application for construction.
“Our hope is we can go back for a Community Development Block Grant for the bricks and mortar phase,” Saunders said.
But that grant would be capped at $320,000, an amount that would cover only half of the expected project cost at most.
Saunders said Mary Johnson officials know they have a long road ahead of them.
“We know it is going to take more than that,” she said. “How we are going to make up that gap is going to be the next problem, and we will be doing some fundraising. We will be writing other grants. It’s just patch, patch, patch and try to make it all work at the end.”
But Saunders said they are more determined than ever to move ahead with a Vergennes project: More than a decade ago a study showed Vergennes needed more childcare, and a 2013 study proved the same.
“It demonstrated there was a significant unmet need for full-day, full-year care in a center-based program,” she said.
Ideally, Mary Johnson would like to bring infant care to Vergennes, but Saunders is not sure that option will be possible.
“There is a significant need for infant care before 18 months,” she said. “We are working on that and thinking about that. At this point it is a financial puzzle we have not been able to solve to serve those children. It is not out of the realm of possibility if we somehow can secure funding.”
But Saunders said it is possible that within a couple years Mary Johnson could be operating a center on Armory Lane.
“We are extremely excited about this opportunity, and really feel this is where we want to put a lot of energy,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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