Lewistown Business Community Comes Together to Address Childcare Shortage
“The childcare shortage does not just impact current business owners. It’s one of the first things potential new business operators think about when considering starting a business in Lewistown. Childcare availability also affects a parent’s decision to live and work in Lewistown.”
-Dave Byerly, Vice-Chair of Fergus County Port Authority, and Lewistown City Commissioner.
Byerly said that the local business community came to focus on childcare when the Fergus County Port Authority (FCPA) started a conversation a few years ago about how to address perceived workforce shortages in the county.
“We were about 15 minutes into a conversation about workforce when we realized childcare was a huge economic development issue,” he said. “We talked about the lack of it, and how that affects our employers across the spectrum in Lewistown.”
Lewistown like its larger, more urban neighbors, is home to a struggling childcare market. Fergus County has just one licensed childcare space available for every 4 children under age 5.
Byerly and FCPA invited Charrisse Jennings, then director of Small Wonder, a licensed, non-profit childcare center operator, to several FCPA meetings with local business leaders. Many in attendance were connected directly or through their employees to Small Wonder; parents of the 207 kids that use the 133 spaces at Small Wonder work at 125 of the area’s businesses.
Many employers’ parents also found themselves on the center’s waiting list. In a county with roughly 620 kids under the age of five, Small Wonder’s waiting list at that time, frequently topped 60 children. The current waiting list is at 84.
Connections made through the FCPA meetings about childcare have led to discussions about how local employers could support their parent employees with childcare access and affordability. Employers recognize that childcare issues can impact labor availability, retention, and productivity.
“Two years ago there was zero community conversation on this that I’m aware of,” Byerly said. “It’s not a mature conversation yet, but we’ve come a long way in a year”, says Byerly. It’s the beginning of a long-term strategy for addressing the needs of Lewistown’s employers, parents, and youngest residents. “The shortage is hitting everything—it’s hitting families, it’s hitting workforce, it’s hitting businesses, it’s why our kids are coming to school unprepared to learn.”
Byerly notes that FCPA is starting to work with other partners to address quality childcare for underserved families in the area, such as families with low- to moderate-income or those involved with the child welfare system. These children are not on any waiting list.