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Mary Johnson proceeds with Vergennes child care proposal

VERGENNES — A project that Middlebury’s Mary Johnson Children’s Center officials have eyed for almost two decades could be coming closer to becoming a reality — a childcare center in Vergennes to serve up to 30 preschoolers, toddlers and possibly infants.
Mary Johnson officials are now seeking proposals, as their recent ad reads, “for architectural and engineering services to support a physical feasibility study of creating the Vergennes Children’s Center on Armory Lane,” with a Sept. 29 deadline to respond.
Mary Johnson co-director Barbara Saunders said the children’s center is now moving forward after being awarded in 2015 a $30,000 Community Development Block Grant to plan for a facility on a 1.5-acre lot near the Armory Lane senior housing complex.
“We are working with a consultant on the next step in the actual plan, what it might look like, the square footage, what it might cost,” Saunders said.
Mary Johnson has conducted two surveys over the years that its officials say demonstrate that families with younger children are underserved in the Vergennes area. The first one was conducted in the early 2000s and the second in 2013 and then updated in 2015.
“The need is particularly acute for children under the age of 3,” Saunders said.
In 2015, Mary Johnson officials said they did not believe they could afford to offer infant care, but now Saunders says they hope Mary Johnson can make the finances add up.
“Infants, absolutely there’s a huge need. This study, part of the reason we’re doing it, is to see if we can make it work doing birth to age 5,” she said. “That’s still very much a question, but we would like to try it if we can pull it off.”
Finances will determine the future of the effort. Mary Johnson hopes to get drawings from a firm that responds to its ad, and then to use those plans to seek funding from organizations such as the Vermont Community Development Program, which administers the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
“We need to show them what it’s going to look like and have the pieces of the puzzle pretty well spelled out,” Saunders said.
The project will probably need more than another block grant to move forward.
“It’s going to be a patchwork of funding,” said Saunders, citing other grants, loans and private and foundation gifts.
If all does work out it will conclude a long quest for Mary Johnson, which has sought space in Vergennes for years. At one point the child center briefly eyed an unused building on city side of the Northlands Job Corps campus.
Then in 2005, as Housing Vermont eyed the land that includes the senior housing center and two nearby lots, Housing Vermont officials discussed a multi-use effort for the parcel including senior housing, a clubhouse for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, and a childcare and education center for which Mary Johnson could have supplied accounting and management support.
In 2011, when Housing Vermont bought the 11.93-acre parcel spanning Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, 6.5 acres of which are dedicated to the senior center, Mary Johnson officials attended a ceremony to mark the occasion.
 “We have been working with Housing Vermont for the past few years,” Saunders said. “They have a lot set aside for us, and we are preceding with the premise that’s where the program will be.”
Mary Johnson is also familiar with Vergennes because it has for almost two decades run a summertime childcare program operating out of city schools.  
In 2015, after Mary Johnson officials received their planning grant, their attention was diverted, at least for a while, by establishing a program in the Orwell Village School.
“That has drawn a lot of administrative focus, which is great,” Saunders said. “It’s full. It’s running fine. But that means other things don’t get as attended to in as timely a way.”
Now it’s time to focus on Vergennes again, but with a little uncertainly added to the mix on the federal funding front.  
“With this economy and this administration we’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Saunders said.
That said, she remains optimistic that Mary Johnson’s long-held goal could be reached.
“I would think a year from this spring that we could break ground,” Saunders said. “I am very hopeful on this project.” 

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