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Modular units could ease day care crunch

BISMARCK -- Gov. Jack Dalrymple asked state officials Thursday to consider an idea that he hopes will help address the child care crunch in western North Dakota's Oil Patch.

Dalrymple proposed a pilot program that would provide energy impact grants to cities to help buy modular child care facilities.

The state has about $870,000 that could be used for a cost-share program that would require cities to secure a location and pay a portion of the cost for the modular facility. Each modular is estimated to cost $250,000 and is designed for up to 18 children.

"What's interesting here is that they come as complete modular units, including equipment and furnishings," Dalrymple said at the Board of University and School Lands meeting. "All you have to do is place them and hook up the sewer and water, and you're in business."

The state's energy impact grant program has helped other infrastructure needs in western North Dakota, but the "tremendous need" for day care services hasn't been addressed, Dalrymple said.

"We've been looking for a way to help with this issue without getting directly involved in operations of a child care facility in any way," Dalrymple said.

The city could use its own money or seek donations from private companies to cover the local share of the cost, Dalrymple said. The city could offer some of the day care spots to its employees or to employees of companies that contribute, Dalrymple said.

The state grants to help buy the modular child care facilities would be a one-time incentive, not an ongoing obligation, Dalrymple said. Money for the pilot project would come from tax revenue paid to the state by the oil and gas industry.

The city could lease the building to a child care operator, Dalrymple said.

Treasurer Kelly Schmidt agreed there's a need for child care. However, she said the board needs to be fair and ensure the grant process is similar to other energy impact grants.

She also questioned if the state was competing with the private sector. Dalrymple said the operator of the business would be from the private sector.

"This is an opportunity for them to get a good space at a very reasonable price, so we're encouraging it, but the enterprise is still in the hands of the operators," Dalrymple said.

A host of reasons have contributed to the shortage of day care in western North Dakota, including the increased population, housing shortage and soaring prices for commercial space.

A fall survey found nearly 2,500 children potentially needing day care in Williams County and licensed capacity for 471, according to North Dakota Child Care Resource and Referral.

Nearly 2,800 children potentially need day care in Stark County, with licensed capacity for 800.

"I think we've identified this as a pressing need, a real problem, frankly," Dalrymple said of the child care shortage. "If anything, we see day care providers going out of business rather than into business because, obviously, they have other opportunities and so it's not going to get better by itself, that's for sure."

Dickinson, N.D. City Administrator Shawn Kessel liked the pilot project idea, saying child care is an issue in Dickinson. He said he would discuss the idea further with other city officials.

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser also was interested in the concept. A large day care provider from out of state recently tried to start a business in town but found it too cost prohibitive, he said.

"We certainly have a huge need for day care," he said. "We have people in our community who need to work but can't work because they simply have to stay home with kids. If we can find a solution to this problem, it helps solve some of our other problems."

Applications for the program would need to come from local governments. Dalrymple asked the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office to work out policies and the application process and to report back to the Land Board.

Teri Finneman is a Forum Communications Co.

multimedia reporter.