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Childcare facility task force moving ahead with a public meeting

DAYTON-The committee on the task force looking into developing a childcare facility and early learning center in Dayton will provide the public with an opportunity to learn more at a meeting on Monday, May 23 at 6 p.m. at the Columbia County Fairgrounds Pavilion. Former State Representative Terry Nealy will moderate the seven-member panel. Childcare will be provided.

"There appears to be a lot of misinformation out there, including this is government-run daycare, that hospital district taxes are being used to build and operate it, that the hospital is going to take every available spot, and so many, many more inaccuracies," Columbia County Health System Shane McGuire said about the reason for the meeting.

For the past two years, the committee has researched the need, funding, and location options for the proposed facility. Once built, the Walla Walla YWCA would operate the center.

The committee considered and ruled out several locations for the facility. The First Christian Church on South Third Street, the former migrant farm workers' camp on the east end of town, and the city park property fell short of the ideal.

This past March, two of the three Port of Columbia commissioners voted against a proposal for the $1.7 million facility to be built on the port owned land adjacent to the Blue Mountain Station. The two commissioners said it would not be a good use of Port resources. The Port's Executive Director Jennie Dickinson has long maintained that a lack of quality, affordable childcare is an economic issue for families and businesses in Columbia County.

The task force is currently exploring other locations. After a location is chosen, site studies will be performed, and construction estimates will be provided.

Paul Ihle, a social worker with CCHS, sits on the task force. He said the committee has received awards totaling $548,500 for the project so far and continues to seek funds.

"We are really hoping to have a good turnout of families who would utilize childcare, and businesses who would like to have childcare infrastructure for their employees, in attendance at the community forum," he said last week.

Shane McGuire has often spoken about the inability to attract and retain employees for the Health System because of the lack of quality childcare in the community. He has also talked about the importance of social determinants of health.

"When kids do not have places to go, when kids are being bounced around from house to house when they don't have reliable care, there is a direct correlation between that and life-long health. We want a healthy, vibrant community. In order to have that, we have to have healthy children," he said at a Port meeting back in February.

According to a 2020 Washington Child Care Industry Assessment sponsored by the Washington Department of Commerce, 96-percent of families in Columbia County do not have the childcare they need. In 2020 and 2021, Dayton's only three licensed childcare centers closed their doors permanently, pushing Columbia County into a childcare crisis.

In the Spring of 2021, the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition (WWVELC), in partnership with Columbia County Hospital System (CCHS) and the City of Walla Walla, applied for and received a grant through the Dept. of Commerce Child Care Partnership to conduct a feasibility study and Arrowleaf Consulting was brought on board. Data was collected across Columbia and Walla Walla counties through survey responses from families, childcare providers, and employers in Burbank, Prescott, Touchet, College Place, Walla Walla, Starbuck and Dayton.

According to the survey results, the high cost of childcare was problematic. Respondents said the lack of quality childcare options were limiting the number of hours they can work. Many respondents said childcare responsibilities were limiting their career goals. And some have had to quit their jobs, entirely.


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