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Childcare facility is needed in Decatur's urban core

The Decatur City Council will soon be considering approving contracts to rehabilitate the former Wee Folks building on North Jasper Street so that the building will meet occupancy standards for a modern childcare facility.  When operating at full capacity, it is expected that the enhanced facility will have 250 childcare openings per shift and will ultimately be able to run three shifts, thereby providing care for 750 children.  Improving this facility is highly complementary to the city council’s strategic priority of workforce development.  Specifically, a new childcare facility will be instrumental in eliminating one of the largest barriers to re-entering the workforce – availability of childcare.  It will also likely grow dozens of childcare worker jobs to operate the facility.

With a childcare facility in the urban core, a very large number of individuals may now be able to join the workforce.  Currently, labor force participation in Decatur is significantly lower than both state and national averages.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2018-2022, the total % of population 16 years and older in the labor force was 56.7% in Decatur compared to 65% in Illinois.  The female % of population 16 years and older in the labor force was 52.7% in Decatur compared to 60.4% in Illinois.  Furthermore, black unemployment in Decatur was 19%, the second highest of any metropolitan area in the United States according to American Community Survey data as reported in the Herald & Review. 

The renovated childcare facility will complement the recently launched Jasper St. Great Streets/Great Neighborhoods initiative by rehabilitating an aging structure, and further illustrates the city’s commitment to improving this corridor (earlier this year, the city council also approved the demolition of the former Durfee School at the intersection of Jasper St. and Grand Ave.).  According to the Jasper Street great streets great neighborhoods report published September 18, 2023, the median age of residents in the corridor is 34.2, lower than the U.S. median age of 38.9 and an indicator of a high ratio of families with young children.  People living in the corridor have a significantly lower median household income ($30,705) compared to the city as a whole ($47,141).  Residents in the corridor are also racially diverse with 51% African American, 46% White, and 3% Hispanic.  Thus, a childcare center in the Jasper St. corridor can be the catalyst to grow the workforce in a part of the city that needs it most.    

It is important to note that the city will not be operating the childcare center. Instead, the model is similar to the completed renovation of the second floor of the Decatur Public Library facility in which classrooms and larger spaces were renovated using city funds to allow for its use by Workforce Development Solutions and the operators of the Thinkwell Makerspace.  The money used for the renovations to the former Wee Folks building comes from COVID-19 funds and will consist of up to $530,000 allocated from CDBG-CV funds and $400,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds, although the exact cost has not been finalized.

While I am very supportive of a new childcare facility in the urban core, Decatur residents are right to have some reservations.  One concern is that the approach that the city used to identify an operator for the childcare center could have been more inclusive.  While the city may not need to bid the operation out such as in a public works project, the approach used in finding a vendor for a professional service agreement would be a good model for the city to follow.  It is unclear whether the city staff approached multiple pre-existing childcare centers about their interest in operating a center in the urban core.  In addition, the projected cost of the project has increased substantially since first proposed.  While expensive, the cost is similar to demolishing the aforementioned Durfee school building.  The difference is that rehabilitating a building to become a childcare facility has the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of residents and grow dozens of jobs in an area of the city that has significant needs. 

Horn for Decatur
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