A rural town in Iowa wants to grow. So she built her first daycare.

At Marcus Town Hall, Darrell Downs flips through a blue binder labeled “success.”

With each turn of the page, the photos gradually change from black and white to color. Downs himself ages in the pages – his hair turning from brown to gray as he poses at the grand openings of dentists’ offices, nursing homes and banks.

At 84, Downs has spent most of his life working to grow his town of just over a thousand people in northwest Iowa. First as mayor for 18 years and now as director of economic development. He said he can always tell what the community needs to grow by the questions potential businesses ask.

“They would come and say, ‘Well, what are you doing? What education do you have? “, he said. “Now when people come into the community they ask, number one, what do you have for daycare?”

Darrell Downs flips through his book on economic development success stories in Marcus. He believes a daycare center is the next thing the small northwest town needs to thrive.

With more than half of Iowa’s small towns losing population in the last ten years, rural communities are looking for ways to halt that decline. The town of Marcus in Cherokee County is working to grow its community by building its first-ever daycare center.

Like many rural communities, Marcus relied on home care providers for daycare. So when one of the city’s providers moved a few summers ago, 20 families found themselves without daycare.

“We called it our childcare apocalypse,” said Belinda Leavitt, a longtime resident who witnessed the exodus of providers.

“I feel like our town is going to die. If we don’t have daycare here, people are going to leave.”

Amanda Ney, home child care provider in Marcus.

Since 2015, Leavitt has seen the number of approved vendors drop from four to just one. As child care spaces dwindled, she worked with different members of the community to come up with the best plan to raise enough money to make the center possible.

With the help of donations from business partners, a state grant and an agreement with the local school to construct the building, the center is expected to open in fall 2023 – after seven years of planning and promotion.

“To me, having daycare is just that one more green light, that one more welcome sign that we would love for you to come back and raise your family here,” she said. “And carry on that legacy.”

Beyond a city

Barriers to accessing child care exist far beyond the boundaries of Marcus. Over the past decade, the Northwest Iowa region has seen a 52% decline in the number of providers.

Children play at Little Raptors Daycare in Holstein, Iowa.  It is one of two approved centers in Ida County.

Children play at Little Raptors Daycare in Holstein. It is one of two approved centers in Ida County.

But daycares like Little Raptors in Holstein haven’t seen the same drop in demand. Director Nicki Jacobson said the Ida County Center’s phone rings at least twice a week with someone looking for child care.

“We have people calling from all over for babies as soon as they find out they’re pregnant,” she said. “They call and ask to reserve a spot because they know it’s so hard to find a spot for a baby to start daycare.”

Statewide, 40% of Iowa towns have children under 11, but no daycare centers are known. Another 47% have care, but fewer slots than there are children.

Iowa Child Care Resource and Referral Northwest Region Director Melissa Juhl said that for many rural towns, the sharp drop in provider numbers should be viewed as a community issue, not a family issue.

“It’s more important than just, ‘I don’t have kids, I don’t have to worry about them.’ It’s your housing, it’s the size of your communities,” she said. “He’s trying to keep rural America alive.”

A 2020 analysis from the United States Chamber of Commerce found that the lack of child care options had a direct impact on Iowa’s economy. Child care issues have resulted in the state losing an estimated $153 million in tax revenue and an additional $751 million in employee absences or turnover.

Iowa Women’s Foundation Dawn Oliver said the economic impact alone should motivate small-town businesses to care.

“If you don’t have daycare, you can’t work. And if you can’t work, you can’t grow your workforce,” she said. “Companies need to get involved because it impacts their bottom line.”

A sign-up booster

When Dan Barkel became superintendent of Marcus Meriden Cleghorn Remsen Union four years ago, he heard from parents across the district about an acute shortage of child care.

He said he was worried about the impact the lack of options might have on registration.

“Some of our families might decide to live in a different community or in a different school district just because child care isn’t readily available,” he said.

    Marcus Meriden Cleghorn Remsen Union High School will build a new daycare center to meet the needs of the community.  The district splits students between Marcus and Remsen.

Marcus Meriden Cleghorn Remsen Union High School will build a new daycare center to meet the needs of the community. The district splits students between Marcus and Remsen.

The district shares students between the towns of Marcus and Remsen. Low enrollment forced rural school districts to consolidate six years ago. Despite some recent gains, Barkel said he worries about the future of the neighborhood if it continues to shrink.

“The only way to turn things around is to turn the business and industry climate around and attract more business and industry to these two communities,” he said.

Barkel said he thinks childcare will be a critical part of attracting more business. It could also help him recruit his own workforce – which has become difficult in recent years, he said. He wants to be able to tell the teachers that there will be room for their families in Marcus.

“It’s very appealing to female teachers, especially working mothers. They really like the idea of, “Wow, you know, I won’t have to go all the way to have my child take care of someone,” Barkel said.

Brittany Sudtelgte sits at her home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  She no longer cares about childcare now that she has left her hometown of Remsen.

Brittany Sudtelgte sits at her home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She no longer cares about childcare now that she has left her hometown of Remsen.

A reason to stay

Many young families in rural areas have to look outside their town to find child care. Before moving to Sioux Falls for a job opportunity two years ago, Brittany Sudtelgte had to use a daycare center outside of her hometown of Remsen.

Between driving 10 miles to Mars for childcare and then another 20 miles to Orange City for work, Sudtelgte said her daily commute ends with a 60-mile round trip.

Now in a bigger city with more childcare available, she said she felt a weight was lifted off her shoulders.

“We have this flexibility to continue to grow our family. It’s definitely a lot less stressful. I didn’t insist on having baby number two because I know childcare is taken care of,” Sudtelgte said.

In Marcus, Amanda Ney is often the first call for families when they are pregnant. As the only licensed provider in town, she has to have tough conversations with new parents. She dreads telling them that they are just one of 18 families on her waiting list.

“It breaks my heart when I can’t host a family,” Ney said. “I just want to take them all and I can’t.”

Amanda Ney stands outside her house, where she works as a childminder.  She is the only licensed home care provider in the city.

Amanda Ney stands outside her house, where she works as a childminder. She is the only licensed home care provider in the city.

She does not see the new center as competition. In fact, Ney went door to door to promote it – fearing what might happen if the community continued to go without.

“Right now we don’t have enough people to help as many people as we want,” she said. “And I feel like our city is going to die. If we don’t have child care here, people will leave. They will leave our community.

She just hopes the families on her waiting list will stick around long enough to see him.

Daniel Wheaton of the Midwest Newsroom analyzed the data for this report.

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