Dana Carroll, City Utilities, Uptown Kids, child care, consortium
The structure was built in 1991 at 1108 N. Robberson Ave. to house a child care consortium called Uptown Kids. The partnership ended in 2001, but the building has been leased ever since by City Utilities to private child care businesses. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

OPINION |

I haven’t thought much about child care in some 27 years. My son is 32 now, and for the most part, I have no idea when he eats, sleeps or, thankfully, when he has a burning, itchy rash.

But I read most of the stories that ran in the Springfield Daily Citizen in July as part of our Child Care Crisis project, an effort in which we worked with KY3.

Being a good, civic-minded Citizen teammate, I was one of 60 people who attended an Aug. 16 forum on the crisis.

The meeting had five panelists, and one of them said what might help is a child care “consortium.” That’s where several businesses would collaborate in sharing the costs and benefits of running a child care center.

Several large companies in Springfield operate centers for the children of employees. A consortium is different.

City Utilities was the driving force

What I have discovered is that it’s been done before in Springfield. A nonprofit called Center City Care Corporation, with headquarters at City Utilities, created Uptown Kids, a nonprofit child care center.

The center opened in a brand new building at 1108 N. Robberson Ave. — just north of the main City Utilities building, the Robert E. Roundtree Center — in August 1991. It had 167 slots.

It closed in 2001.

The main force behind the operation of Uptown Kids was City Utilities, but six other agencies or businesses were partners.

  • The Springfield News-Leader
  • Drury College (now Drury University)
  • Greene County
  • Springfield Public Schools
  • Springfield-Greene County Library District
  • Social Security Administration

The partners had priority for slots

In exchange for their financial support, the partners were given priority for slots at the center for infants and pre-kindergarten children.

In addition, empty slots were available to the public at large.

The “frequent fliers” in terms of filling slots were City Utilities and Greene County, says Dana Carroll, who was director of Uptown Kids for two years. She thinks it was 1997 to 1999 when she was hired by Community Partnership of the Ozarks. (Carroll was a panelist at the forum.)

Greene County Juvenile Services is across the street from the child care center.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW


I found little on financial arrangement

I could find little information on the financial arrangement on how costs were shared other than a sentence in a Jan. 26, 1990 story in the News-Leader.

The Springfield School Board approved $6,500 for its share of the start-up costs.

That same story stated that the City Utilities Board approved $35,000 to buy the lot where the child care center would be built.

Mary Beth Mann, first director of Uptown Kids, tells me two structures on the lot had to be razed. I found newspaper ads from the 1960s that state an “eight-room home” was once there.

A new building meant a monthly mortgage

I have no profound conclusions or opinions on whether Uptown Kids was a success.

But it seems the decision to construct a brand-new center was significant. I spotted two different anticipated costs for the building: $670,000 and $900,000.

The building still stands. It is owned by City Utilities, which has leased it to different private child care centers since 2002. In fact, Monarch Children’s Academy operates from the site today.

Mann tells me one of the main struggles in child care — then and now — is paying qualified workers a decent, livable wage.

“To have quality people, you are going to have to pay them more than minimum wage,” Mann says.

I heard those same words over and over at the August forum.

Mann was hired in early 1990. She had a doctoral degree in early child care and, years later, would work full time at Missouri State University.

But Mann quit in late 1990 before Uptown Kids even opened. She had studied the budget and concluded it would not be possible to pay employees a livable wage and also make the mortgage payment.

No ‘champion’ willing to replace CU

In Carroll’s view, the consortium was created because City Utilities had many employees with infants and young children and was looking to partner with downtown agencies to create a convenient and well-run center.

Similarly, Carroll believes the consortium ended because City Utilities no longer had that many employees with young children and no longer wanted to be the glue that kept it together.

“You did not have another champion willing to pick it up,” Carroll says.

Joel Alexander, City Utilities spokesman, says the history of the center has faded in the minds of many at the company.

But in general, he says, all the partners wanted out of the child care business.

Looking back, Carroll says, the consortium was a success because it made child care more personal to the business partners.

When it’s more personal, she says, businesses and government agencies care more and are likely to contribute more.

“I do not know if it is a silver bullet, but I think it would help us at least to begin to solve the crisis,” she says. “Currently, what is happening is that people are looking for the cheapest child care they can get.”

Two mothers who recall convenience

Valerie Eastman was a new mother in 1991 and was new to Springfield. She worked at Drury. Today she is 60 and a psychology professor at the school.

She served on the Uptown Kids board of directors. She remembers learning how expensive it is to run a child care center.

She also recalls how well it worked for her at that stage in her life.

“It was available, conveniently located downtown, and it was very reassuring to know that he had a safe place to go to,” she says of her son. “I feel for the parents now with the shortage.”

Back then, Kathleen O’Dell was a reporter at the News-Leader with a baby girl.

She convinced the newspaper’s editor and publisher to join the consortium.

She recalls fondly there was a promotional poster of her and her daughter Hannah in the hallway encouraging other parents at the paper to use Uptown Kids.

O’Dell, like Eastman, served on the board of directors.

“It started because many of us were working in the downtown and mid-town area, and we thought it would be great to have our kids near us,” she says.

“We could dash over and see them. Or when it came time to pick them up, it didn’t take long. You know the life of a reporter. Going to the last minute on deadlines. It was so convenient not to have to drive across town to pick up your child.”

What’s the difference, then, between the Uptown Kids child care consortium once there and the private child care business there today?

“Because of the paper’s involvement, we felt a stronger tie and a greater responsibility to help make it successful,” she says.

This is Pokin Around column No. 59.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin