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Stable child care in Watauga County would add 300 employees to the local economy, study finds

Liz Bell/EducationNC

By: Liz Bell- May 14, 2024

Insufficient child care is keeping 300 individuals out of the labor pool in Watauga County, a new study estimates.

“If you put all 300 of those people under one roof, that would be a top-10 business, based on employee count, in Watauga County today,” David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview with EdNC.

“And that’s without having to relocate people,” Jackson said. “That’s without housing as a concern. That’s 300 people that move back into the workforce.”

As the child care needs of communities intensify, local and state business leaders are engaging in the issue in new ways.

In Watauga County, however, business leaders like Jackson have been working toward child care solutions since before the pandemic exposed how fragile the industry is — and before the pending expiration of federal relief funds threatens the future of nearly a third of the state’s child care facilities.

Those funds run out at the end of June, and those business leaders are sounding the alarm. They’re hoping the study, released in April by the chamber and the Watauga Economic Development Commission, provides evidence to back up the longstanding problems they’ve been facing — and a platform to advocate for urgent change.

“It’s just a matter of, does the state of North Carolina want to invest in itself?” Jackson said. “… It feels like this is one of those seminal moments right now where you could say, ‘In the face of everything that we’ve just come through, here is an opportunity for us to insulate our future.’”

The county needs 579 more child care slots, the study found, than the 913 slots it has. When it comes to after-school care, the county needs 1,672 additional seats.

The county has 34 licensed child care facilities, the same number it had in 2018, according to the study. In neighboring Wilkes County, the number of facilities went from 44 to 29 from 2017 to 2022, a study by the same agency, Dancy Researchfound last year. Statewide, the number of licensed child care programs has decreased by 14% since 2018.

Jackson points to the community’s efforts to support the industry as the reason behind that relative stability.

“The scramble of the last few years has helped maintain stability,” he said. “Without a stronger community effort behind it, I would shudder to think of where we are now.”

Read the entire article at EdNC