About six months ago, in July 2018, Becker County received word that it was one of six outstate areas in Minnesota selected to take part in the Rural Child Care Innovation Program, or RCCIP.

The news could not have come at a better time, as the county is in critical need of affordable childcare access: According to a fall 2018 survey conducted by First Children's Finance, the nonprofit organization lending its expertise to the RCCIP, a total of 648 slots are needed to mitigate the current shortage in Becker County.

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According to that same survey, the highest need exists in the communities of Detroit Lakes (213), Frazee (133) and Ogema (78), followed closely by Ponsford (60) and Lake Park (49). A total of 37 child care slots are needed in Osage, 34 in Audubon, 20 in Callaway, 19 in Rochert and 5 in White Earth.

Since that initial survey was done, a core team of volunteers have been meeting regularly to put together an action plan for addressing the local child care shortage, and on Monday, about a half dozen members of that team met at Ecumen to begin the process of prioritizing strategies to incorporate into the plan.

"There are about 650 slots needed right now," said Karen Pifher of Becker County Energize (BCE), who facilitated the meeting. "That need will keep growing if we don't do something different than we're doing now."

A total of about 40 different strategies were reviewed, with an eye to feasibility, specificity, overall value, and how much that strategy could potentially increase the available child care options.

The top six strategies identified through this process - those which rated high in all four of the above-mentioned areas - were:

• Establishing a new faith-based child care facility;

• Free consultation services for startup child care providers and facilities;

• Easy access grants for child care providers and facilities;

• Local and/or easy access to training services for child care providers;

• Make tax increment financing options available to child care facilities;

• Accessibly located, one-day classes for re-licensure of providers.

Other strategies with strong support included co-located child care services at a business, school or care facility, and public recognition for child care providers who are doing a good job.

Some of the key factors behind the current child care shortage were also discussed, including provider burnout, increasingly restrictive state and federal regulations, community and business growth (which leads to increased need), and a lack of health insurance and other benefits for providers.

Another meeting to continue the process of refining the plan will take place on Monday, Feb. 11 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Essentia Health St. Mary's EMS building at 225 Park St., Detroit Lakes..

Pifher said the group is looking to wrap up the planning part of the process within the next month or so, and the results should be available online via the BCE website sometime in March.