House passes bill to make more space for child care

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By EMERSON WIGAND
Capital News Service

LANSING — The Teddy Bear Day Care and Learning Center in Traverse City has three facilities but its wait list still numbers over 200 children.

“The access to child care is absolutely atrocious,” said Teddy Bear’s coordinator, Anna Fryer, “We’ve been a child care desert.”

One way lawmakers are considering to create more child care oases is to remove state prohibitions on facilities in multiuse buildings.

In Traverse City, for example, one new center that could help meet demand had been hampered by a prohibition on licensing facilities in spaces shared with “hazardous operations.” 

This wording was an issue for a new child care facility coming to Traverse City, which will share space with a restaurant that serves alcohol. The multiuse building will house various occupants and is being built by a real estate developer, Commongrounds.

Under the current regulations, the restaurant was considered a “hazardous operation.” Commongrounds went through a variance process with the state licensing department, so its facility is approved regardless, said Kate Redman, the project director at Commongrounds.

But legislation sponsored by Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City, could remove this sometimes long and expensive process for future applicants.

“A lot of child cares are working hard, focused on taking care of kids,” Redman said. “So, adding extra layers of administrative work can be prohibitive for folks.”

The bill would remove restrictive wording and provide more specific rules for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. It would allow more case-by-case consideration by requiring inspection and allowing applicants to describe the nature of other building occupants.

This legislation recently passed the House and was referred to a Senate committee. 

The issue is not unique to Traverse City, said Warren Call, the president of Traverse Connect. Traverse Connect is an advocacy group that supports local businesses like Commongrounds. 

“There’s multi-occupancy buildings across the state that would benefit from having child care providers collected with other types of businesses,” Call said. 

While some of the most acute needs are in Traverse City, it isn’t just an up north or rural issue, said Call, so, it will benefit developers, businesses and communities statewide. 

Call says that is especially true in urban areas, where multiuse buildings are common.

That’s why West Michigan businesses have been asking how this bill will impact them, said Alexa Kramer, the director of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

“Before this legislation, the immediate business reaction was concern of liability and of red flags and regulations,” Kramer said.

The well-intentioned regulations on multiuse buildings do not help the shortage of child care options, said Redman. 

Compared to the high demand, there aren’t many licensed child care options in the city itself, said Anna Fryer, who runs Teddy Bear with her mother-in-law, Beth Fryer.

It’s harder to make a living now in child care, Beth Fryer said. With stringent rules for in-home facilities, many left the field, which reduced options in Traverse City.

Meanwhile parents in Traverse City and elsewhere pay as much as $200 to reserve a child care slot, often before their child is born, said stay-at-home mom Jill Achard. That is especially true of infant care, which has limited spots and a high demand.

Achard, who runs a Facebook group of Traverse City moms, said it should be examined on a case-by-case basis. 

“If it’s next to a bar, that can sometimes get a little rough,” Achard said. “But if it’s next to just a restaurant that serves alcohol, like Applebee’s or Chili’s does, I think that would be OK.”

This opens doors for new locations for businesses, Kramer said.

The legislation is part of a larger package focused on expanding child care in Michigan. The package included eight bills passed by the House Oct. 6 with bipartisan support. 

“This is one bill that would be really helpful for our business community as another tool to explore,” Kramer said.

The bills are a good step for expanding child care options, Anna Fryer said. However, people need to understand and appreciate the importance of those working in the field.

“We’re not babysitters, we are educators setting the tone for the future generations,” she said. “If they want it to grow they have to support it.”