By Liz Shepherd
WARSAW — Kosciusko County is experiencing a childcare desert, with only one of every three children having access to quality childcare.
This results in a significant impact on businesses that are struggling to attract and retain employees, with many parents staying home with their children due to lack of affordable childcare.
Since fall 2020, Instrumental Machine and Development, a local Warsaw business, has been working in collaboration with LaunchPad to help provide affordable childcare for its employees. LaunchPad is the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce’s Childcare and Early Learning Coalition, established to help solve the county’s childcare crisis.
With LaunchPad, IMD conducted an employee-wide survey and found that 30% of their workforce have children under the age of 12 and need childcare; 100% of those surveyed expressed concerns about the difficulty of finding quality childcare at an affordable cost.
“We need to find an option for our employees because a lot of times they’re resorting to a family member who also may not be in an ideal situation to take on the daily tasks of caring for a child,” said Miriel McFarland, IMD education and training supervisor. “Many people have to leave their job, or we have employees whose spouse determines working outside the home is not a viable option. We’re trying to get both adults out and working so that all our employees can be financially successful. That’s the end goal, help them and help the kids.”
While LaunchPad and IMD have been working together to decrease the childcare desert, the process of establishing a local childcare center has had some setbacks.
In March, IMD requested a variance from the City of Warsaw’s Board of Zoning Appeals to allow a childcare home in a residential district on Parker Street. IMD’s initial plan was to buy a home in the area and work with Early Childhood Alliance in Fort Wayne to establish a childcare provider within the home. The facility would be used for IMD employees in need of childcare.
“We don’t just want to provide a babysitter, we’re trying to include a high quality educational element to it,” said IMD President Todd Speicher. “This is kind of an unusual approach or unusual solution to part of the problem. We’re just a small piece of the solution. If I have an employee who has a spouse that stays at home, and we’re able to make it so that childcare is affordable for them, then that stay-at-home parent can maybe go out and get that extra part-time job, and it makes them that much more financially successful.”
The City of Warsaw’s BZA unanimously denied the initial request and four neighbors were present at the March meeting in opposition. The board made the denial due to the city’s municipal code drawing a distinction between home childcare uses, which are permitted in R-1 zoning districts, and childcare centers, which may have an impact on the character of a neighborhood and adjacent properties.
“The main issue is that we are trying to provide affordable quality and availability in daycare and we have been denied,” said McFarland.
“The childcare system has been broken for a long time,” said Sherry Searles, LaunchPad director. “Even before we started LaunchPad, we had seven (childcare) programs close in five years. Programs are difficult to sustain financially. So it’s a broken system. We’re looking at creative solutions. What the Speichers are doing is what every community is hoping that their employers will do.”
Speicher said he’s aware of neighboring employers experiencing very similar issues with employees not having access to affordable, quality childcare.
“If we can be that model, and assist them (local employers) in answering their questions and get them hooked up with the right people that we’ve been blessed to get associated with, then we’ll become that advocate,” said Speicher.
Since the denial, the Chamber of Commerce and LaunchPad have discussed the issue with the county’s area plan commission. In recent APC meetings for the county, the two groups have requested existing ordinances be reviewed to see if changes can be made on home childcare facilities.
With state regulations, home childcare facilities are able to operate without a resident living in the home. These facilities would still need to be approved by the state and subject to state regulations and inspections.
At a June meeting, the APC discussed an ordinance amendment that would allow home childcare facilities to exist in the county. The ordinance would bring more definition to home childcare facilities and distinguish them between home daycares and commercial childcare centers.
APC will have a public hearing regarding the ordinance changes on July 7. If approved by APC and county commissioners, future home childcare facility requests would go before Kosciusko County’s BZA for approval. All property owners within 100 feet of any future proposed facilities would be notified of the request and invited to a public hearing for each individual facility.
“We are very excited and thankful for the steps the APC took (in their June meeting),” said Searles. “The proposed amendments are very generous and will help to remove a significant barrier to adding more childcare seats in the county.”
“Their suggested amendments to the zoning ordinances truly have the potential to be a game changer,” said McFarland. “If they are approved, we go back to our original plan of providing much needed childcare to both our employees and the Kosciusko County area. Moving forward, we hope to find a new location that will meet both our standards and the county’s in fulfilling our vision for this project. Additionally, it is our hope that the City of Warsaw will align their ordinances similar to the county’s proposal and possibly provide a model for more area businesses.”