Duluth Mayor Emily Larson called a news conference Wednesday afternoon to tick through some of the accomplishments of her administration in the past year, but she also drew attention to a big unmet need. Larson cited a 2018 Wilder Research study which found the city could use at least 1,100 more child care slots.

"I'm excited to announce today, in partnership with the 1200 Fund, that the board of directors of the 1200 Fund has decided to take this challenge head-on and address the child care shortage with all the tools we have available," she said, announcing the pending launch of a child care incentive program.

"This program will allocate a total of $500,000 in loans or grants to small, licensed child care providers to create new child care slots in Duluth," Larson said.

Betty George, who chairs the 1200 Fund's board of directors, said individual providers could each qualify to receive up to $50,000 through the program.

George noted that civic and business leaders formed the 1200 Fund in 1984.

"The 1980s were very dark days economically for Duluth, with the closing of the steel plant and other businesses. So, the creators of the 1200 Fund decided that they were going to design a funding mechanism to create 1,200 jobs, and they certainly have exceeded that over the years."

"Now the 1200 Fund is poised once again to change with the needs of our community, and as Mayor Larson has said: The focus of this change is the critical need for child care," George said.

In evaluating applications for support, George said the 1200 Fund will consider the number of jobs to be created, the number of children served "with priority given to later hours — beyond 9 to 5 — and also for infant care." Applications should be available by Jan. 15 at 1200fund.com.

While city officials would not hazard an estimate of how many new child care slots will be created through the new initiative, Larson said she hopes it will significantly narrow the 1,100-child gap identified by the Wilder Research report.

"Those of us in the community who have children or have raised children understand how important it is that you have safe, affordable child care, so that you can go about your day with the confidence you need to know that your kids are being well cared for," Larson said.

Larson noted that same need is shared by employers "so that you know your workforce has those same needs met, and when they come to work they can focus on the job."

At Large Duluth City Councilor Arik Forsman pointed out that earlier this year the council passed a zoning change that he said "allowed for more child care providers to move into certain areas of the city."

Forsman said he also talked to Larson "about what would be another foundational program that we could have here within the city of Duluth to really tackle this head-on, and I'm pleased that staff has worked so hard this year and that the 1200 Fund has decided to step up as that entity.

"This is becoming more than just a family crisis. It's a community crisis. It's an issue for our businesses and our business community, and I think finally we're deciding as a community to step up and do good work for it," Forsman said.

He called the initiative "an investment in the potential of our kids, our families, our community and our businesses."

"I think it firmly plants a flag here in the city of Duluth toward realizing that vision where we can become a destination for young families," Forsman said. "As we work to address both our housing shortage as well as more family-sustaining jobs, child care is another part of that foundational platform for young families being successful."