REGIONAL — It’s by no means a new problem, but a new effort is under way to give child care a desperately needed boost throughout Greater Minnesota.

Statistics provided by the Greater Minnesota Partnership (GMNP) show that more than 39,000 additional child care spots are needed in Greater Minnesota alone, including more than 5,000 in the southwest region of the state. The child care woes are compounded by the fact that, even though population in several Greater Minnesota counties grew between the years 2000 and 2020, more than 20,000 child care spots were lost during those two decades.

As a result, the GMNP and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities are actively supporting investments aimed at stabilizing the child care marketplace, keeping providers in the industry, expanding access to child care for families and providing opportunities for annual training required for child care providers. It’s seeking up to $14 million from the state legislature for child care-related initiatives while also receiving a potentially game-changing $550 million in child care funding through federal American Rescue Plan legislation.

Scott McMahon, GMNP’s executive director, explained during a Wednesday morning Zoom call with The Globe that there exists “an amazing opportunity” to positively impact child care. Citing both the federal money coming to Minnesota as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the state’s current $1.6 billion surplus, now’s the time for not just a quick and much-needed cash infusion, but long-term change as well.

“We have the resources now,” McMahon said. “Now, we need the political leadership to step up.”

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One potential place to start is the Greater Minnesota Child Care Facilities Capital Grant Program, which was established by the state legislature in 2020 but never funded. It was created to provide grants of up to $500,000 to local governments in Greater Minnesota to fund up to 50% of the costs to build, upgrade or expand child care facilities to increase capacity

and meet state requirements. A total of $4 million from the state legislature is being sought for this program.

A bill funding child care grants from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development would also provide money for child care business start-ups or expansions, needed training, facility modifications, child care employee retention grants and licensing assistance. A total of $10 million — with at least 50% dedicated to Greater Minnesota — is requested in this legislation.

The need to boost child care is about far more than simply a babysitting service for kids.

“We hear from employers regularly on this ... and child care is a significant economic development issue in Minnesota,” said Scott Marquardt, executive director of the Southwest Minnesota Initiative Foundation. COVID-19 has only taken problems related to child care that existed prior to 2020 and made them worse, he added.

Both Marquardt and Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian joined Wednesday’s Zoom conversation, and Baustian further explained Marquardt’s point from a community’s perspective.

Baustian, who sat on the Luverne City Council for eight years and has served as mayor for 10 years, said the city has tried to address child care shortages for years.

“In 2016 … we couldn’t get people hired because there was no daycare in town,” he described. “That became our No. 1 laser beam focus in late 2016 and from an economic development standpoint in our city, daycare is the No. 1 issue. Without daycare you don’t have workers, and businesses can’t grow.”

The Luverne Economic Development Authority hired a consultant to examine the problem and work toward finding a solution. In 2017, there were 46 daycares in Rock County; an updated study in 2019 revealed just 33, and more have shut their doors in the wake of the pandemic.

“Three separate groups have come forward and wanted to put up a daycare center,” Baustian said. “The business plan doesn’t work. Years later, we’re no better off today than we were then.”

That lack of progress is one reason why it’s hoped that the new infusion of federal money will go a long way in helping Greater Minnesota communities reduce their child care gaps and, as a result, increase their economic vitality. GMNP data reveals Worthington alone is short by 391 spots.

As part of early plans for the state’s next budget, DFL lawmakers planned for an additional $50 million in state funds to be targeted to child care programs. They’ve also proposed Greater Minnesota child care grants, which have gained bipartisan support.

Meanwhile, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said $524 million of the federal funds should be used to “help stimulate the retention and growth of quality early learning programs in child care deserts” and provide roughly 35,000 early learning scholarships to low-income families.

“We have fiscal limitations that have not allowed us to fully fund those high-quality early learning scholarships,” Nelson said. “We must take advantage of this unique opportunity to make an investment in our youngest children, their parents and child care providers that will grow our economy for this generation and the next.”

Senate Republicans have said they hope the one-time federal funds can make a meaningful dent in addressing the state’s child care crisis.

“It’s $525 million, it’s a large amount of money injected into child care over the next two years but I would like to have something to show for it when the money stops coming,” Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee Chair Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said. “The Senate will not have additional money in child care, this will be a lot. And if we invest it well, we can have a lot to show for it.”

District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, has authored SF 1168, which appropriates $10 million for the Greater Minnesota child care facility program by authorizing the sale and issuance of state bonds. He has also co-authored SF 1169, which would appropriate $10 million to DEED for the Greater Minnesota Child Care Facility Capital Grant Program.