Building a Better Future for Our Children
The childcare shortage in the Upper Valley has become an increasingly pressing and widely felt issue over the past several years, affecting not just families with children, but whole communities. In Lebanon, the Early Learning Center of the Upper Valley Project (ELCUV) – a 22-milliondollar childcare facility projected to be in business by 2027 – aims to help address this issue.
A pre-Covid Vital Communities study estimated that there was a shortage of around 2,000 childcare openings in the Upper Valley. Now, with staffing shortages and childcare facility closures increasing, this number presumably continues to rise, putting more and more Upper Valley families in a tough spot.
Certain economic and equity problems within the community are a direct result of the lack of quality childcare in the area, says City Manager Shaun Mulholland, who is leading the team for this project.
“We have a lot of highly qualified people who cannot return to work because they don’t have adequate childcare, or they can’t find child care, or they can’t afford childcare,” he says. “This is a critical need in the Upper Valley – it directly impacts the workforce.”
“That’s one issue,” Mulholland continues. “There’s also an equity issue here. Not always, but more often than not, it’s women who are left unable to return to the workplace… while their peers are advancing in their careers and the ability to gain funds for retirement in the future, that woman is falling behind, and that is incredibly unfair.”
The Early Learning Center – which will be located on City-owned land at the new Airport Tech Park on Airpark Road – is a collaboration between the City of Lebanon and the Boys & Girls Club of Central New Hampshire, who will run the facility and provide on-site training for Upper Valley childcare professionals.
“It’s a good partnership – public, private/non-profit – to try to address this problem,” says Mulholland.
The facility is predicted to meet about 10% of the childcare needs in the Upper Valley, by providing care for 140 children ages 0-5 and 60 school-age children through an after-school program, with 51% of spots dedicated to families with low-to-moderate income (at or below an annual income of $73,000 for a family of four). Financial aid packages will also be available.
The center will serve families throughout the Upper Valley region, and conveniently located near route 12A, it will be a useful resource for employees who work in and around West Lebanon.
Funding for the project will consist of grants, state tax credits, and fundraising. Proposals have already been submitted for a congressionally directed spending grant and a community development block grant. The project team will work with corporate partners and set fundraising goals to meet the rest of the projected budget.
While the primary goal of the project is to address the local childcare shortage, it will also embrace the early childhood education model, which is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., and has already gained traction in the Upper Valley.
“It’s no longer ‘childcare’ (that’s what it’s commonly referred to as); it’s actually early childhood education,” Mulholland explains. “Because we’re teaching kids at young ages, we’re starting to educate them… that’s what we’re focusing on here to allow these students when they do get to grade school that they will have some of the skills that are necessary to help them accelerate through that and allow them to be more productive and effective in the world that we live in.”
“The world is really changing,” Mulholland adds. “When my kids went to daycare, it was daycare – it wasn’t to educate students, it wasn’t to help them socialize… now there are formal programs and curriculums [for early childhood education].”
With this in mind, the project will take advantage of the natural landscape around the building site, including conservation land that will be easily accessible to the ELCUV and the public. Plans for a public park and nature-based learning will be incorporated into the design for the facility.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here… to help our kids get ahead,” Mulholland says.