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A rendering of the Gentex Discovery Preschool, a 43,000-square-foot child care facility planned at the company’s Zeeland headquarters in partnership with nonprofit ODC Network. The project is part of a broader plan to add 1,000 child care slots in Ottawa County over three years. A rendering of the Gentex Discovery Preschool, a 43,000-square-foot child care facility planned at the company’s Zeeland headquarters in partnership with nonprofit ODC Network. The project is part of a broader plan to add 1,000 child care slots in Ottawa County over three years. COURTESY PHOTO

Public-private partnership aims to create 1,000 child care slots across Ottawa Co.

BY Wednesday, November 30, 2022 11:46am

Ottawa County officials have signed off on plans to leverage $7.5 million in federal stimulus funds with nearly $25 million from the private sector to create 1,000 new child care slots in the next three years.

Local nonprofit and education advocates, along with several major Ottawa County employers such as Shape Corp., say the “transformational” plan will have a generational effect on families by reducing the cost of child care while increasing access. 

The $37.5 million public-private partnership will be led by outdoor education nonprofit ODC Network, which would work closely with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District to implement the plan. The ODC Network operates three preschools and leads various outdoor education and conservation projects, while the OAISD oversees a $20 million early childhood education budget and is the largest countywide provider of early childhood services.

More than 10 private-sector employers have committed financial support, including building child care centers and subsidizing some of their employees’ child care costs.

The 1,000 additional slots, about one-tenth of Ottawa County’s current child care capacity, would be located at company facilities as well as home-based centers throughout the county. Some of the business-based child care centers at Shape, Stow Co., Nu-Wool Co. Inc. and the Shops at Westshore would be open to the community and not exclusive to those companies’ employees. 

In a separate announcement today, Gentex Corp. announced that it will build the Gentex Discovery Preschool, a 250-slot child care center at its Zeeland headquarters for its first- and second-shift employees. Gentex will also offer discounted child care rates for its employees. The 250 Gentex slots are part of the broader three-year plan to create 1,000 new child care slots, an ODC Network official confirmed.

Ottawa County currently has roughly one child care slot available for every two children.

“This is unacceptable, and it is on all of us to step up and be part of the solution,” Nu-Wool Chief Operating Officer Matt Henderson said during a Nov. 22 Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Nu-Wool, a Jenison-based insulation manufacturer founded in 1949, could potentially build an onsite child care facility and also plans to offset employees’ child care costs “to help reduce the burden of child care on our team members and our community,” Henderson said.

“There is no doubt that the current system of child care is broken,” he added. “I see and hear about it from team members every week.”

ARPA funding approved

Henderson was speaking ahead of the county commissioners’ unanimous vote on Nov. 22 to allocate $7.5 million of the county’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funds to the project. According to the project proposal, private employers have committed about $20 million in matching funding while another $4.5 million “would come from a combination of partners who offered letters of support, but not yet specific dollar commitments and other business partners who have expressed interest.”

Ottawa County Administrator John Shay indicated that the county will contract with a national consulting firm in the coming weeks to determine contractual requirements among the program participants.

The three-year, $37.5 million project includes $25 million in capital costs to build the facilities and another $10 million for staffing wages and benefits, according to the proposal.

The nonprofit ODC Network operates three nature-based preschools in Ottawa County that serve nearly 400 children with education, wrap-around care services and full-time child care. The organization also operates multiple nature and discovery centers and leads several conservation projects.

ODC Vice President of Marketing and Communications Alexa Redick said the child care project proposal came together roughly a year ago.

“It comes down to the fact that when people don’t have access to reliable, affordable and accessible child care, it causes an issue for all West Michigan employers,” Redick said. “We’re seeking to help fix this gap of low capacity.”

Redick is also confident that the ODC Network will be able to fully staff the facilities by 2025, once the necessary contractual, construction siting and professional licensing approvals are granted.

“The ODC Network is not only nature-based and family-centered, but we pay employees industry-leading wages,” she said. “It’s a safe haven for people doing quality and nature-based work.”

Demonstrated need

After an affordable housing revolving loan fund, the child care project was the second-largest ARPA spending priority identified in Ottawa County’s 18-month proposal review process. That reflects a strong interest in addressing the problem, which officials have linked to declining labor participation rates.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a $7.5 million investment of ARPA dollars that would trigger an additional $30 million in investment to create 1,000 child care slots,” said Mike Goorhouse, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Holland-Zeeland Area, who led the county’s process of reviewing human services-related ARPA proposals. “For context, there are 10,000 child care slots in Ottawa County. To add an additional 1,000 child care slots is a really big deal.”

“At the end of the day and in those early meetings, we said … we want transformational projects that can make a long-term difference in the community,” Goorhouse added during the Nov. 22 meeting. “That’s what this is.”

Shape Corp. owner and board chair Kyle Verplank wrote in a September letter that the company hopes to provide about 200 child care slots for first and second-shift workers.

“Too many families don’t have access to child care creating a ripple effect across the community,” Verplank wrote. “Families without stable child care are less likely to stay in or return to the workforce and aren’t able to grow in their career like they may otherwise choose. This directly impacts the labor pool available to our company and affects our ability to grow and create economic value for our community.”

As well, Nu-Wool has increased its employee count from 60 in 2019 to 96 in 2022, but continues to have roughly 30 open positions while struggling to find labor to accommodate its growth plans.

Katie Kozal, human resources director at the family-owned company, said a lack of child care is a “very real concern” that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, “was the main reason that we were seeing people either not re-enter the workforce or it was a main barrier.”

Kozal believes the child care plan could bolster the region’s overall competitiveness in attracting talent.

“I think it’s great to see other businesses come together to support the community. We love where we work and live and don’t want to see potential employees have to go outside this area,” Kozal told MiBiz. “We’re always interested in helping everyone be more competitive, not just our employees or our customers. We definitely think if private companies can come together, it will create that kind of advantage and put the Jenison, Hudsonville area — which doesn’t get a lot of press — on the map and make us competitive in our area.”

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