Big projects to bring more childcare slots
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury area will see a major infusion of much-needed childcare slots during the next two years, thanks to a big expansion of an established center and the launch of a new one.
Assuming a smooth permitting process, construction will begin next spring on a much-anticipated “Community Childcare Expansion Project” at the Otter Creek Child Center (OCCC) at 150 Weybridge St., a project designed to create 77 new childcare slots (for a total of 139) and 28 related new jobs in our area by the spring/summer of 2025.
Meanwhile, organizers are making final preparations for a new “Red Clover Childcare Center” within the Congregational Church of Middlebury that will offer 24 slots for children ages six weeks to 3 years old. Officials said a smooth hiring and permitting process could see Red Clover open, initially on a limited basis, as soon as mid-January.
Folks close to both projects recently took time to update the Independent on their efforts, aimed at satisfying at least some of Addison County’s pent-up demand for childcare services.
The nonprofit childcare advocacy organization Let’s Grow Kids places Addison County’s childcare needs at 471 slots for infants and 240 slots for toddlers. But current capacity in our area offers only 148 infant placements and 111 for toddlers, according to Let’s Grow Kids, whose research also shows an estimated need for 148 additional preschool spots to meet the county’s demand.
RED CLOVER SET FOR WINTER OPENING
Congregational Church volunteers have spent many months planning Red Clover, which will function as an independent nonprofit within rent-free space in the church building at 2 Main St. Church leaders saw a pressing need for affordable, well-run childcare services and resolved to help fill that void. The nascent Red Clover Childcare Center has received a huge assist from $560,000 in donated seed money, including $200,000 from local nonprofit Table 21 and a staggering $360,000 donation from an anonymous, longtime supporter of the church’s community outreach efforts.
Naylor & Breen earlier this year completed renovations to Red Clover’s future home in the Congregational Church. The biggest tasks were installing sinks in three future center classrooms and transforming an unused elevator shaft and stairwell into a laundry room for both the church and Red Clover to use.
Next, the independent Red Clover board, chaired by Ellen Whelan-Wuest, got to work on the various permits, state licensures and other foundational tasks for the new childcare center. And on Sept. 25, the board welcomed Red Clover’s first executive director, Tessa Dearborn. Dearborn is in her 11th year in the childcare field and spent her last three leading the Kid Logic Learning center in South Burlington.
“I’ve worked in every role in a center capacity,” said Dearborn, who’s also a parent and Addison County resident. Her roles have included being a substitute teacher, assistant teacher, lead teacher and director.
Dearborn saw Red Clover as an intriguing new challenge.
“I wanted to be more involved in the groundbreaking piece of creating a new program, bringing more quality spots to Addison County,” she said.
“I was really moved by the mission, the concept of giving to the greater community,” Dearborn added.
Red Clover officials will spend the next two-plus months getting the center ready for what would ideally be a mid-winter opening, starting with one classroom and then gradually ramping up to its 24-child capacity.
Dearborn and the Red Clover board are still sorting out enrollment criteria, likely to include a lottery system to ensure fairness. Center teachers will be the only parents who might get an advantage for center childcare spot, officials said.
“The goal is for it to be equitable for all,” Dearborn said.
Once fully staffed, Red Clover is expected to have seven teachers — six classroom educators, plus one who’ll be available program-wide.
Both Dearborn and Whelan-Wuest hailed passage of Vermont’s 2023 Childcare Bill as offering key financial stability for a Red Clover operation that was expected to run deficits during the early going, due in part to a young age of the children the center will care for, which means more intensive supervision. The new state law will invest $125 million annually into Vermont’s childcare system, allowing centers to more successfully attract and retain educators, while making more families eligible for childcare subsidies.
“It’s game-changing,” Whelan-Wuest said of the childcare law’s financial impact. “The potential change in our bottom line is profound.”
“It makes high-quality care truly affordable for families and helps programs stay sustainable,” Dearborn said.
That said, Red Clover boosters will continue to seek grants, foundation funding and private donations to help sustain the new center. For more information on the center and how to donate, go to tinyurl.com/vnnufn66.
“We’ve never stopped trying to fundraise,” Whelan-Wuest said.
OTTER CREEK CHILD CENTER EYES SPRING GROUNDBREAKING
Linda January, executive director of OCCC, is excited to see funding and design work come together for the facility’s long-planned expansion. She anticipates a new project cost estimate and firmer construction timeline will both be available by early December.
Officials had ballparked the project at $10 million, and January is guardedly optimistic that forecast will hold true.
“We’re working really hard to not exceed that number,” she said.
Planners had originally mapped out a two-phased project. Phase one called for a 13-month construction timeline for the addition, followed by a complete gut rehab of the early 20th-century farmhouse that OCCC has called home since its founding in 1984. Phase two was expected to take around a year.
But officials have now decided to do the entire project — the addition and rehab — in one fell swoop. This means the OCCC will get the work done more quickly and with some savings, but the center will have to find a temporary home for its programming during the roughly yearlong construction period, January explained.
Officials have already identified temporary hosts for OCCC, all of which “are within walking distance of downtown Middlebury,” January stressed.
Another recent change to plans: Placement of the center driveway on the southern side of the building, through what is now OCCC’s parking lot. The driveway was originally pegged to stretch through an adjacent lot (donated by Middlebury College) to serve the north side of the facility. January said the original driveway plan had to be scrapped due to the amount of fill that would’ve been required in its construction.
“Putting the drive to the south of the building shortens it drastically and reduces costs,” she said.
Costs are a huge consideration, and January cited several big grants and a huge contribution from Middlebury College that will together underwrite more than half the project price tag. They include:
• A $4 million commitment from Middlebury College that includes the aforementioned 2.5-acre Weybridge Street parcel just west of OCCC that will make the building addition possible.
• A federal earmark of $3,1050,351 that flows through Let’s Grow Kids. January praised former U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy for his work in securing that aid.
• A Vermont Community Recovery & Revitalization grant of $500,000.
• $350,000 through the Northern Borders Regional Commission.
• $200,000 from the Let’s Grow Kids “Make Way for Kids” program.
• $100,000 from the Hoehl Family Foundation, which will serve as seed month for OCCC’s capital project fund drive. Organizers will soon equip the OCCC website with an online donation option. In the meantime, anyone interested in contributing should reach out to [email protected].
The Middlebury Development Review Board will soon evaluate OCCC’s plans, which are now undergoing an environmental review.
A potential spring 2024 groundbreaking can’t come soon enough for all OCCC stakeholders, who got a taste of bigger things to come.
“For the children, it’s very exciting to have excavators and drills and other equipment at the site doing pre-construction stuff,” January laughed. “They are loving it.”
John Flowers is at [email protected].
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