BEMIDJI -- More than 39,000 additional child care sports are needed across Greater Minnesota, with Beltrami County alone needing 1,323.

The data was compiled by the Greater Minnesota Partnership, which is working alongside local entities for state funding at the Legislature this session. The partnership is a non-profit advocacy organization that consists of businesses, chambers of commerce, foundations, cities and colleges.

According to information from the partnership, outside of the metro area, the state has lost more than 20,000 child care spaces from 2000-2020. To adequately meet the need, an increase of 52% in child care spots is needed.

"Some areas are doing better than others, but it's a crisis," said Scott McMahon, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. "I think we're going through a time where there is less interest in providers having a family child care business in their home. The challenge we have in Greater Minnesota, though, is it's harder to fill the economic model of a child care center."

In regional cities, child care spots needed are:

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  • 35 in Bagley.
  • 581 in Bemidji.
  • 101 in Blackduck.
  • 274 in Cass Lake.
  • 123 in Park Rapids.
  • 224 in Redby.
  • 41 in Walker.

McMahon said the shortage not only causes difficulty for families but creates challenges for the economy as well.

"Each one of those slots we're missing is a story of a family making economic decisions based on not being able to access child care," McMahon said. "These translates into significant workforce, family and community challenges."

Erin Echternach, assistant director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development and a member of the Minnesota Department of Human Services Family Child Care Task Force since 2019, said it's one of the biggest hurdles described by employees and businesses.

"It's not ideal, but one of the benefits of the pandemic was this hybrid, work from home option," Echternach said. "I do think there's going to be more flexibility with employers to offer that to employees so that could alleviate some of the child care issues. But, I had a toddler at home with me during the early part of the pandemic, and you can't focus and do 100% of each with that way either. So, we do need child care options for sure."

To support efforts to fill existing gaps, the Greater Minnesota Partnership and local advocates are seeking legislation with $4 million in Minnesota Initiative Foundation child care grants. The grants provide funding for community planning coordination, training and education to expand child care access.

The local initiative entity, the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, operates the Child Care Finance program. Missy Okeson, Foundation community impact officer and child care lead, said the program provides loans to new businesses.

"If you're starting a new child care business, you can reach out to us," Okeson said. "We have a person who meets with the provider and they can get up to $5,000 of a forgivable loan of five years. If a provider has been in business for longer than six months, you can also get a low-interest loan of up to $5,000."

Also being sought from the Legislature is $10 million for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for child care business start-ups, expansions, training, facility modifications and licensing assistance. As part of the effort, advocates are looking to make at least 50% of the $10 million available to Greater Minnesota.

The partnership is also seeking funds for the Greater Minnesota Child Care Facilities Capital Grant program. The program provides grants of up to $500,000 to local governments, cities, counties and school districts in Greater Minnesota.

The grants can fund up to 50% of the costs to build, upgrade or expand child care facilities to increase capacity. The goal is to get $10 million in bonds and another $10 million in general fund appropriation, which would be matched with $20 million in local funds.

According to Echternach, there's also a bill under consideration that will offer more flexibility for alternative models in Minnesota.

"One is a 'pod model,' where four different child care businesses are in one building with different sections," Echternach said. "So, they share the lease and the costs, and that benefits the bottom line. We also want to explore other options other than a large center that work for smaller communities. We're also hoping we can loosen strings around employers being able to hold licenses for child care. They can now hold up to one license, and we want to get that up to four. That way they can add staffing or a building."

According to McMahon, the key to such legislation is finding a balance that ensures good care for the children.

"The thing to keep in mind is all of these regulations are set up to have the most safe environment for the children," McMahon said. "If you have a single person caring for 10 kids, you probably don't want them caring for 10 infants. So, we want to figure out what the balance is."