The city of Duluth appears poised to remove at least one barrier to expanding day care options and empowering businesses to meet their workers' child care needs.
Monday night, the Duluth City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance that would allow child care facilities to locate in mixed-use business districts.
At Large City Councilor Arik Forsman, who sponsored the ordinance change, said he hopes the increased flexibility will open the door for more care providers to locate closer to the places where people work.
Although he didn't drop names, Forsman said the ordinance actually arose because of a business that had expressed an interest in addressing the child care needs of its workers.
"I think there are some additional steps that would need to happen before they can actually go forward with that. But the ordinance is a first step," he said.
Forsman suspects other local businesses will be looking into child care, too.
"There are quite a few of these discussions bubbling up, which is exciting," he said.
Forsman said he found city administration quite receptive to the idea of allowing day cares to operate in mixed-use business districts.
"It's an easy change, because manufacturing these days looks a lot different than it used to. So, having child care up next to a manufacturer is not as scary as it used to be, because there's a way to do it safely," he said.
The two uses truly can fit together when done right, said Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning, economic development and construction services.
"Mixed-use business is not heavy industry. It's light manufacturing and assembling activities. They're not the large smoke-stack industries. They're not chemical industries. ... We would not want a day care in one of those industrial zones," he said.
As for the mixed-use business districts, Hamre said: "Generally, these are areas that are job-creating employment centers, and as such, they really need ancillary businesses, service-oriented businesses to serve the employees who are there."
Forsman predicts good day care providers that locate close to employment centers will find a receptive market.
"People want their kids to go to a good child care provider, and having one close by their work, where they can maybe even check on them at lunch, makes a ton of sense," he said.
Hamre suggested the ability to locate day cares in new areas of the city could lead to unique partnerships.
"It provides an opportunity for a group of employers to get together and do a day care center or sponsor a day care center. Maybe they'd provide a space for a day care center. It would allow for those kinds of unique collaborations to happen," he said.
Already, some local employers are looking into the matter.
For example, Marty Weintraub, owner of Aimclear, a Duluth-based marketing agency, said he's exploring the possibility of opening a day care above his offices at 9 W. Superior St.
"We have 10 Aimclear babies. And it's a full-on crisis if it's a day when there's no day care because of a snowstorm or if there's an illness going around or something. We hardly have anybody in the office," he said.
Should Weintraub move ahead with a day care, as he's considering, he said it likely will be for a larger-scale operation than he would need solely to meet the needs of employees.
"My opinion is that if we do this, we need to do it for the community, and our staff happens to be an important part of the community," he said, adding that he's thinking of maybe a day care with capacity for around 70 children.
Although his offices are not located in a mixed-use business district, Weintraub said he supports efforts to remove barriers to other employers who want to help workers with child care.
"We believe in what Arik is doing. He's right on the money," he said of the proposed ordinance change. "It's a complete no-brainer."
Weintraub said operating a day care is tough enough already, considering all the rules, regulations and staffing demands involved.
If he moves ahead with the idea, Weintraub said he will do so with no illusions.
"Doing day care to make a profit, especially in outstate Minnesota - even in this metro-ish kind of area - that's just not realistic," he said.
Weintraub likened the exercise of launching a day care to "threading a needle with a bulldozer," but he quickly added that meeting families' needs for quality child care is a societal imperative. And it ultimately just might be good business, too.