Jul 21, 2021

Otter Creek Child Center eyes expansion

MIDDLEBURY — The Otter Creek Child Center (OCCC) is seeking support for a new, 15,000-square-foot facility on its 150 Weybridge St. property that would allow the nonprofit to more than double the combined 61 children currently served at the OCCC and the nearby College Street Children’s Center.

The project, preliminarily placed at around $8 million, will require buy-in from Middlebury College, loans, donations and grants, organizers said. The OCCC recently submitted a request through the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for a federal appropriation of $3 million.

“I am confident that we will bring OCCC and College Street Children’s Center (CSCC) together under one roof in a state-of-the-art facility that is designed to cater specifically to the needs of children age birth to five,” said OCCC Executive Director Linda January. “By increasing our capacity, we will help to alleviate the stress of finding childcare in Addison County, which is a huge concern for families and businesses in our community.”

The dearth of affordable, quality child care in Addison County has been well chronicled.

An estimated 467 infants and 231 toddlers are likely in need of care, according to a January 2020 report from the state nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids. But currently, local capacity can only provide slots for 155 infants and 114 toddlers — a total of 269 — leaving gaps of 312 and 117 for infants and toddlers, respectively, the report states.

Addison County has lost almost 50% of its licensed child care programs during the past 15 to 17 years, local advocates said. And that doesn’t include the impending closure of Middlebury’s Sunshine Children’s Center.

“The overall stress on the existing programs makes staff retention an ongoing challenge and physical plants are typically small, awkward retrofits of former residences that are not candidates for meaningful expansion,” reads a narrative for the OCCC expansion plan, supplied by January. “To increase stability and predictability of service to families across the region, the time has come to build a new facility to better serve future generations of Addison County.”

The groundwork for an OCCC expansion has been laid by the county’s Community Childcare Expansion Team (CCET). The 12-person team’s members include such folks as January, Addison County Parent Child Center’s Cheryl Mitchell, the state’s Specialized Child Care Services Coordinator Doumina Noonan, Middlebury College Director of Community Relations Sue Ritter, and Darla Senecal, the Addison County regional director for Building Bright Futures.

Together, the expansion team members took a view of the county’s overall child care challenge as well as the specific cases of the OCCC and CSCC.

Founded in 1984, the OCCC is a private nonprofit that serves children ranging in ages from six weeks to six years. The OCCC currently employs 16 teachers and has a licensed capacity of 45 children. It’s based in a renovated, turn-of-the-century farmhouse at 150 Weybridge St.

Founded in 2001, the CSCC operates under the 501(c)(3) designation of Otter Creek Child Center. Based at a renovated private home at 228 College St., the CSCC currently employs nine teachers and is licensed for 24 children.

Neither the OCCC nor the CSCC can be renovated to accommodate growing program needs, local advocates have concluded.

“As such, it became clear several years ago that the better long-term strategy would be to combine those centers into a single new facility that increases the number of available spaces for infant, toddler, and preschool care in our area, and creates a replicable model for successful, sustainable childcare centers in other towns across the state,” reads the OCCC expansion plan narrative.

Current plans call for the new, two-story, 15,000-square-foot facility to be built either adjacent to or behind the existing OCCC building, with the current building used as expanded space for the new center, which would be fully ADA-compliant. Amenities would include a large play space, a big kitchen, staff lounge, small conference rooms, generous vestibule for parents to linger in during transitions, and director offices near the main entrance.

The new center — intended to be a statewide model — would also be surrounded by “multiple age-appropriate, nature-based playgrounds,” according to the project narrative.

Once completed, the new center would eventually serve up to 139 children, more than double the combined 61 currently served by the OCCC and CSCC, according to project planners.

Organizers aren’t just concerned about bricks and mortar; they also want to retain and supplement a quality staff augmented by Middlebury College students pursuing studies in early childhood development. Upon completion, the project would create at least 28 new jobs for program staff.

The 2021 Vermont Legislature provided a major assist this spring when it passed H.171, which includes more than $8 million to boost child care subsidies and help cover educational expenses of child care employees.

“We will continue to build on a sustainable business model that will allow us to compensate our teachers with increased salaries and full benefit packages,” said January, who added the new facility could also be used for community meetings, conferences and birthday parties.

“OCCC has been in Middlebury for 37 years and CSCC has been here for 20 years,” she said. “We love this community, and we want to continue to be an integral part of it forever.”

Middlebury College officials are still assessing the extent to which the institution will contribute to the project, but it will clearly be a major player. Many college staff members and faculty, like other county households, rely on quality child care in order to balance their professional and family lives.

“The college is planning to provide financial support for the construction of the new center,” Ritter said. “The amount of the contribution will depend on a number of factors, including funding from other sources.”

She noted the goal of the center will be to “reflect the diversity of the larger Addison County community enrolling families from all towns and backgrounds.”

The center will also need to comply with enrollment guidelines in order to qualify for state/federal funding and subsidies for clients. For example, a minimum of 25% of enrollees will be receiving tuition assistance from the state’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program, according to Ritter.

At the same time, the new center will look to accommodate its major backers with enrollment capacity.

“It is anticipated that a percentage of slots will be reserved for employees at Middlebury College and other employers who contribute to the project and that the number of slots will be similar to or less than the percentage of slots reserved for children who receive financial assistance,” Ritter said.

College officials have yet to decide a future use for the CSCC building, should it be vacated.

Potential uses for the current OCCC building, according to January, include office space, conference rooms, a staff lounge for the teachers, and a “gross motor space” and an art studio space for children.

“There would also be a new kitchen and new storage space,” she said. “We basically want to upgrade the building to include many of the amenities that it currently lacks.”

Click here to read this story on the Addison Independent website. 

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