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North Dakota aims to stabilize day care with loans, grants to providers

Becky Walen found out firsthand how shaky the day care sector can be.

A year ago, she went to drop off her 2-year-old son at Sara's Little Angels in north Fargo, only to find it closed with no warning - one of several sudden closures in Fargo and West Fargo during the past year.

"Unbelievable, when you go on a Friday morning and there's no day care and you need to find somewhere by Monday," she said.

A new state program offering loans and grants to licensed day care providers aims to add some stability to day care services in North Dakota.

During a visit Monday to Juniors Center for Children in Fargo, Gov. John Hoeven and Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle promoted the $1.75 million program approved by lawmakers last spring.

Hoeven and several legislators cited child care as a key component in developing the state's work force.

"This really is a need for many families. When you have both parents out there working, they need to know there is quality day care available," said Hoeven, who proposed the grants during his 2008 re-election campaign.

The state Department of Commerce will administer the two-pronged program, which ends June 30, 2011:

* Providers may apply for grants of up to $5,000 to pay for infrastructure such as furniture, fixtures and equipment, and grants of up to $10,000 for technical assistance or business planning. Both grants require a $1 match for every $3 in state funds.

A total of $500,000 is available. The application deadline for the first of two rounds of grants is Oct. 31.

* The program's $1.25 million loan component offers low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to buy equipment or to acquire, lease or remodel property.

"This program will help hopefully expand day care options throughout the state as well as provide equipment that may be necessary in some cases to deliver safety for children," Goettel said, giving examples such as egress windows, fencing and playground equipment.

Jennifer Vollbrecht, a co-owner of Juniors, said the business planning grant "is going to be huge" for people starting day care centers and dealing with unforeseen expenses and issues as she and her partners did in June 2008.

"We were quickly reminded that there's many parts that go along with operating and owning your own business," she said.

North Dakota has about 1,500 licensed child care facilities, accounting for half to two-thirds of all day care providers in the state, said Linda Lembke, director of Child Care Resource & Referral.

The Commerce Department will screen applicants with the help of community input and CCR&R, Goettle said.

He conceded that there's nothing to prevent a day care provider from getting a grant and closing the operation months later.

"That's always a risk," he said.

However, the state doesn't expect the business planning and technical assistance grants to be repaid, Goettle added.

"If they go through that process and then determine, 'We can't do this,' well, we have provided a service in terms of helping them decide whether it's a 'go' or a 'no-go' type of decision," he said.

Vollbrecht said Juniors' owners hope to apply for the grants but are finding it difficult to come up with the matching funds.

"It's exciting that the money's there, but just getting your hands on it might take some working on," she said.