Dubuque leaders celebrate child care funding, welcome governor to new facility

Dubuque economic, education, government and nonprofit leaders on Thursday celebrated new funding from a local collaborative expected to boost the area’s child-care capacity by more than 500 spots.

Representatives of Dubuque Initiatives and Greater Dubuque Development Corp. hosted a grand opening and tours of the Bright Minds Campus at 7900 Chavenelle Road, which included a visit from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier in the day and testimonials from individuals impacted by the new child-care developments.

After sharing details with the Telegraph Herald earlier in the week, Dubuque Initiatives and GDDC announced at the event Thursday that they have allocated a total of $621,816.86 to 16 Dubuque County child care centers for recruitment of 141 additional staff members. The extra staffing will result in an additional capacity of 516 child care slots countywide.

The allocation is the first of three anticipated rounds of disbursements from a fund launched with a $560,000 state grant last year. Area employers since have donated $780,000 in fulfillment of a local match requirement, with the largest contributor being John Deere Foundation — which recently pledged $600,000 to the initiative over the next three years.

“We will invest both in the development of this beautiful facility where we find ourselves this afternoon and also in a support program to assist existing child care businesses, including wage enhancement, so that our child care workers can have a living wage,” said Dawn Lueken, crawlers program manager with John Deere, speaking to a crowd of close to 100 people at the Bright Minds Campus on Thursday.

The building, purchased by Dubuque Initiatives from Medline in 2022, houses Dubuque Y Early Learning Center and soon will house Dubuque Community Schools’ Seedlings Preschool Center.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds toured the facility Thursday morning ahead of the grand opening and met with local stakeholders for the programs housed there.

Dubuque Community Schools Superintendent Amy Hawkins told Reynolds about the district and Dubuque Community Y’s plan to collaborate on a wraparound care program for families who need after-school child care for their preschool-aged children. She also noted that the two entities hope to share building space, professional learning opportunities and staff.

Reynolds described the facility as a model for other communities and said the state wants to continue partnering with local entities for similar projects.

“(Child care) is a No. 1 priority of ours, so we’re going to continue to look at ways we can help be that partner and help with funding,” she said.

In an interview with the TH, Reynolds touted her administration’s investment of over $500 million in child care, from business grants and construction of new facilities to support of existing centers.

She also praised the partnerships between the county, city and business community to leverage state funding and create Bright Minds Campus. Dubuque Initiatives also was awarded a $2.16 million state grant for the project to purchase and transform the former Medline building into a child care center.

“It’s incredible to have (businesses) step up and be a part of it and recognize that they win because workforce is all I’m hearing about from businesses,” she said. “We’re trying to bring new people to this state. We’re trying to keep our young people that are graduating, and we want to make sure that we can allow them to work by providing affordable, quality childcare. This facility is doing that.”

On Thursday afternoon, GDDC President and CEO Rick Dickinson said that by providing additional funding for existing child care centers, GDDC and Dubuque Initiatives hope those employers can boost wages and training for staff. This ideally will improve retention and recruitment and increase overall child care capacity.

Holy Family Catholic Schools Early Childhood Program Director Lis Ernst said that already has been the case for her organization, which recently received a total of about $170,000 across five facilities from the Dubuque County Child Care Solutions Fund. The fund is being administered in partnership with Exceptional Persons, Inc. and Child Care Resource & Referral of Northeast Iowa.

“This grant, along with others that we have received from the state, have enabled us to fulfill a longstanding goal of compensating our dedicated team with fairer wages,” Ernst said. “Just last month, Holy Family Early Childhood awarded stay bonuses to one-third of our workforce who have worked for us for over five years … (and) we are investing in training for our employees and incentivizing continual professional development.”

Peosta resident Zach Little said he and his wife, Sarah, found themselves in sudden need of new child care for their 2-year-old son in December.

Coincidentally, Dubuque Y Early Learning Center had its open house only days later. Zach said their son is now enrolled at the center, and their daughter, born earlier this month, will be, as well.

“The passion that all the providers have here … gives us a lot of peace when we’re both working,” he said.