Cash Baumgardt was born with a full head of dark hair and deep blue eyes. It was love at first snuggle for his mom and dad, Deanna and Brad Baumgardt of Buffalo Lake. Deanna is a nurse, and Brad is a farmer. When it was time to return to work, they struggled to find someone to care for Cash.
“When he was born, a lot of in-home child care in our community and surrounding communities had closed or were in the process of closing, which didn’t leave us many choices,” Deanna said. “He was in three different child cares. I knew child care was hard to find but I didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it proved to be. I hated changing. Starting somewhere new and learning to trust new people with your kids is hard for parents to do.”
Cash is 5 now, and he has a brother, Mavrick, who is 2. They learn and explore each weekday at Little Stangs Learning Center, which didn’t exist when they were born. With the vision of the Buffalo Lake Economic Development Authority (EDA), a creative partnership with Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart (BLHS) School, and community support and funding, this new child care center went from an idea to opening its doors in less than two years. It welcomed kids to its classrooms June 2018.
“I like to tell people if there was just one person who couldn’t do their part, it wouldn’t have happened. That’s how important the community support was,” said Lori Holtberg, director at Little Stangs.
A local couple donated the land for the center. The EDA owns the building, and BLHS School operates the center. Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) awarded the project $20,000 through a grant from the State of Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to increase child care capacity for children and families in the area.
“Buffalo Lake, Hector and Stewart formed a true child care desert. With only one of the three communities having licensed care available, families were going to extreme measures and driving distances as far as 30 minutes or more to find care,” said SWIF Youth and Family Officer Jodi Maertens, noting that Little Stangs has created 60 new child care slots, with the potential to add up to 15 jobs.
The foundation is committed to finding child care solutions that help families, employers and communities. Our Bright Beginnings Loan Program is designed specifically for child care providers, both family child care and center-based. In addition to loans and grantmaking, SWIF staff gather people around the table for conversations to figure out what a community needs and can support.
One key part of those conversations is inviting businesses to help face a challenge that may not appear to affect them. In Buffalo Lake, EDA director and financial advisor Lorie Kurth-Kirtz gets the economic impact of child care and helped lead the Little Stangs project.
“It’s been a huge asset to the community, and that was our goal as the EDA — to bring people to main street, to have parents dropping their kids off every morning and night, using the grocery store and the bank and other services.” Lorie Kurth-Kirtz, Buffalo Lake EDA
And the child care brings another economic benefit: Parents like Deanna and Brad can be part of the local workforce. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2014, 74 percent of Minnesota households with children under age 6 had all parents in the workforce, the third highest in the nation.
“We love our kids and I want to make sure that when we can’t be with them, that they are with someone who cares about them as much as we do,” Deanna said.
A Community Project
The dream of opening a new child care for Buffalo Lake, Hector and Stewart started with the Buffalo Lake EDA.
“I knew when my kids were that little that day care was scarce,” said Lorie, the EDA director. “You were on a waiting list the minute you found out you were pregnant. That was 13 years ago already.”
A 2016 census survey in the BLHS School district showed what Lorie experienced as a parent was still true. According the results, 224 children ages 6 weeks to preschool needed child care, with only one licensed child care provider in the area at the time of the survey. Essentially, there were licensed spots for 12 children in the school district.
The EDA board wanted to address the issue. It started by visiting Franklin, a city of about 400 also located in Renville County that had recently built a new child care center. Franklin community leaders shared detailed information about the paperwork, costs and challenges involved, and the Buffalo Lake EDA decided to move forward, Lorie said.
In partnership with BLHS School Board, the EDA gathered community members, employers, school staff and others for input on where to build a child care, how to operate and finance it, who could potentially own it and what it would be named. The estimated $1.4 million cost was a major hurdle.
“We were building a very expensive building in a small town. There’s no resale value,” Lorie said, but “different people within our community had different resources and contacts. They really helped get it off the ground.”
The local bank helped project leaders understand the gap between what a bank loan would cover and the project cost. Additional loans, donations and grants helped bridge the gap, including $20,000 from Southwest Initiative Foundation through a grant from DEED.
Land on Buffalo Lake’s Main Street was donated for the project, and in June 2018, Little Stangs opened its doors. Because BLHS school district operates the learning center and employs the staff, they’re potentially eligible for health care and retirement benefits through the school district, which is important since child care is a difficult field for recruiting employees.
“One of the main reasons the school is involved is because families were going outside the district for child care, and then when they come to school age, well now what do we do? If there’s no transportation, parents have to look at going to the school where the day care is.” Lori Holtberg, Little Stangs
Little Stangs has space for up to 60 children and cares for ages 6 weeks to preschool. School-age care is offered before and after school and on non-school days by the district. In addition to classrooms, the new building has a kitchen and lunchroom as well as a covered outdoor area with small playground equipment. Children of all ages are encouraged to learn through play, music, movement and time outside. School-age kids enjoy field trips, games, reading, outdoor exploration and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities.
Lori, the center’s director, started her career at a church-sponsored preschool in Buffalo Lake in the ‘90s. She completed the early childhood program at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson, worked at a child care center, then was a family-based child care provider for 15 years in Hutchinson.
“I really wanted to see this new child care succeed for Buffalo Lake, and I knew that I would be a good fit for the program. It helps to know the community when you’re starting something new,” she said.
Kids at Little Stangs may be young, but they are engaged citizens. The preschoolers visit Buffalo Lake Healthcare Center nursing home a couple times a month to see their “grand-friends.” In summer, the older kids gardened in a plot the EDA provided for free. And the youngest can be seen in warmer months out for a stroll.
“I like it as a business owner to see the fun little six-person buggy on their walk to the park,” said Lorie at the EDA. “It brightens your day. They’re all excited and they’re waving.”