Local push for more child care access to increase capacity by over 500 spots

Initial funding allocations from a local collaborative are expected to increase capacity at Dubuque-area child care centers by more than 500 spots.

Dubuque Initiatives, in collaboration with Greater Dubuque Development Corp., has allocated $621,816.86 toward a total of 16 Dubuque County child care centers to support recruitment of 141 additional staff members.

The extra staffing will result in an additional capacity of 516 child care slots countywide, according to Dave Lyons, strategic initiatives consultant for GDDC.

“What this funding really does is allow child care centers to staff up to licensed capacity,” said Lyons, who also is acting as a project manager for Dubuque Initiatives. “Many of our facilities are operating below licensed capacity (due to low staffing). That’s why those … slots are there to fill.”

The allocations are the first in an anticipated three rounds of funding. The fund was kickstarted by a $560,000 state grant and since has grown to over $1.3 million in available dollars thanks to $780,000 in donations from area employers.

A total of 11 employers have donated to the fund so far, but the largest contributor by far is John Deere Foundation — which recently pledged $600,000 to the initiative over the next three years.

“That’s basically a challenge award,” said GDDC President and CEO Rick Dickinson. “It’s not conditional upon a match, but their goal was to really encourage all employers in the Dubuque market to become similar champions for child care.”

That donation and more will be announced today at a grand opening celebration for the Bright Minds Campus at 7900 Chavenelle Road.

The building, which nonprofit Dubuque Initiatives purchased from Medline in 2022, is home to the new Dubuque Y Early Learning Center, which opened in January with initial capacity for 120 children. The building also will host Dubuque Community School District’s new preschool center once it opens this fall.

Between the addition of new facilities such as the Bright Minds Campus and extra funding for existing centers, Lyons said, the goal is to take a broad approach toward the removal of “child care access as a barrier to employment and wealth creation.”

According to a 2022 study commissioned by GDDC, locally available child care slots severely lag behind demand. The result is that some parents are forced to leave the workforce to ensure their children are cared for, Dickinson said.

“In our community, your first call isn’t to Mom and Dad to give them the good news that you’re expecting. It’s to a child care provider hoping you can get a slot for child care,” Dickinson said. “The waiting period far exceeds a year, and that just doesn’t work for young couples trying to work.”

Of the 30 businesses interviewed for the study, 26 reported a barrier in availability of child care and 13 specified the need for infant care. Other recorded deficiencies included a lack of early drop off or late pickup options, as well as sick care.

The goal of providing additional funding for existing centers is to address some of those issues by increasing overall capacity, as well as increasing wages and training opportunities for new and existing employees.

Any licensed child care center in Dubuque County that accepts state money for child care is eligible to apply for a portion of the funds. To be considered, centers submit applications outlining how they would use the funds and how they plan to sustain those new positions or wages. The Child Care Solutions Fund is being administered in partnership with Exceptional Persons, Inc. and Child Care Resource & Referral of Northeast Iowa.

Dubuque Initiatives and GDDC now seek to secure an additional $500,000 in donations to guarantee another two years of funding. After that, the hope is that centers will have identified ways to independently sustain newly funded positions or pay increases, said Kevin Lynch, board president for Dubuque Initiatives.

“This really is the result of people working together and creating partnership to solve what appears to be unsolvable,” said Lynch.

To incentivize private donations, area employers can secure one slot for an employee’s child at the new Dubuque Y child care center for every $5,000 donated until slots are filled. Once spots are filled, businesses will receive preference when an opening becomes available.

Notably, John Deere waived its right to the slots that would have come with the foundation’s $600,000 donation. Other local employers who have contributed to the initiative include Theisen Supply Inc., Q Casino, the city of Dubuque and more.

Q Casino CEO Alex Dixon, who is also chair of GDDC’s board of directors, said he has seen firsthand the importance of casino staff having child care access. At times, he said, it can be the difference between a pregnancy announcement being a celebration or a resignation.

By donating to the cause, Dixon said, the casino’s goal is to see the availability and flexibility of care improve for area workers.

“As we look to be an employer of choice in the region, (child care assistance) is just another tool in our tool belt to be able to ensure that there is the capacity to care for this community’s children,” he said. “It supports our employees, but it also supports the broader community ecosystem.”