GREAT FALLS - The Great Falls Development Authority says that based on a recent childcare needs survey and report, the Great Falls downtown business district has a "tremendous need of safe, vetted childcare at a convenient location — and for those services to be available for non-standard hours, especially for employers in the healthcare industry, first responders, law offices, and others."
The survey, completed by 308 people, says that demand is expected to increase due to a higher birthrate in the area, among other factors. The survey estimates a childcare center need for about 580 kids in Great Falls.
“There wasn’t anything that surprised me out of it. And if you talk to most parents, which I’m one of those, no surprises there,” said Jason Nitschke of the GFDA. “There is more need. There has always been more need. A long time ago, we recognized that there is not a single county in the state of Montana that has sufficient out-of-home childcare. We wanted to quantify that number in Cascade County. The biggest obstacle standing in the way of this is the staff to be able to do it.”
As the need for childcare is growing, several organizations in Great Falls are in talks about the possibility of establishing a Childcare Cooperative. Organizations involved include Family Connections, Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Job Service, United Way of Cascade County, and the City of Great Falls.
Discussions started in February of 2020 when Family Connections said the nationwide shortage is creating challenges across Great Falls.
"All across Montana, and really all across the country, there's a shortage of childcare everywhere. Most childcares have a waiting list, and there's very little non-traditional care like evenings, weekends, early mornings," Family Connections spokeswoman Lori Cereck said.
"The study showed that there is a severe shortage in Great Falls, and also statewide, it's not just a local problem, and it revealed that over 580 children in Great Falls need childcare, and so that's of course, affecting workforce development, parents being able to find childcare and just overall economy of the city," explained GFDA director of content marketing Lyndsay Bruno.
The group is exploring facilities to meet childcare needs and believes a downtown location will benefit both parents and businesses. The Community Recreation Center located just at the 800 block of 2nd Avenue North is one of the possible locations.
"We chose the downtown area specifically because of the business center of the city. There are many businesses downtown that have been adversely affected by all of the economic downturn in the last two years, and one of the biggest ways is workforce," said Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce workforce education coalition and development director Scott Wolff.
"They have had a hard time hiring people to reinvigorate their own businesses as a result in lack of childcare, so that is why we have chosen to target the downtown area specifically is to help the economic drivers in the community, get the workforce back into play that they need," Wolff continued.
In order to successfully establish a childcare cooperative, organizations say community input is essential.
"This is very much a community decision. We want the community, the business owners, the parents, and our city to decide what is the best option for our community, and it's a pretty exciting time when we can do that, we can look at our community and see what is going to be best for us," Cereck stated.
Organizations said they are currently putting together a steering committee along with gathering support from downtown businesses for their upcoming meeting on Thursday, May 12 at 8:30 a.m. For more information, contact Scott Wolff at 406-308-9529 or swolff@GreatFallsChamber.org.