Thompson said the moment hit hard as he realized Buegler and others were in a precarious situation. He decided to pitch in about $20,000 with a local banker to keep the Little Sprouts Learning Center open in the rural town, which has a population of about 1,600.
That worked for a while, but Thompson said he knew it wouldn’t be enough to sustain the day-care center, which was operating as a nonprofit.
“It got to the point where the committee running it could no longer pay the bills,” he said. “We jumped in to keep it afloat through donations and fundraisers, and that continued for several years. But it wasn’t a solid, long-term solution.”
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Thompson said he has written other large checks to help keep Little Sprouts running since that first crisis in 2015. He now employs about 30 people at his firm, and doesn’t mind when employees bring their children to work in a pinch when they need it.
“I’ve seen firsthand how this affects people,” said Thompson, who is also chairman of the Warren Economic Development Authority. “If people have to move away to work and raise their families, our town can’t grow.”
In 2019, Thompson helped put together a committee that spent several years taking an in-depth look at Warren’s day-care dilemma.
They explored several options to financially assist the day-care center, which was licensed for 47 infants and children and seven teachers. None of those options worked long-term.
Last year, he and the committee proposed an idea:
The city would ask residents to vote on a 20-year sales tax increase of half-a-cent to fund a $1.6 million low-interest loan for a new child care center, while keeping the old one open as it was being built. By doubling the number of teachers and increasing the availability of open slots, the day-care facility could survive.
The plan was that Warren City would own the building and lease it to Little Sprouts, and the day-care center could continue to operate as a nonprofit.
On Nov. 8, 2022, the measure narrowly passed. Thompson said he hopes Warren can be a possible example for how other small towns might solve day-care accessibility and affordability, adding that a handful of other rural communities have tried similar approaches.
The majority of day-care centers in the United States are privately funded or function as nonprofits, but there are a few exceptions.
Fairfield, Iowa, for example, recently used a combination of private donations and state and local funding to build a new child care center that opened this month.
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The new Little Sprouts center is scheduled to open in Warren in late November, and the center will be licensed for 20 teachers and care providers and about 100 infants, toddlers and preschoolers — more than double its current capacity, Thompson said. A groundbreaking ceremony is planned for next month.
“We’re an agricultural community centered around corn, soybeans and sugar beets, and we have a lot of young people,” he said. “Now there’s an incentive to keep them here.”
Nationwide, about 51 percent of the population live in child care “deserts” with no child care providers or not enough licensed child care slots, according to a 2018 study by the Center for American Progress. The pandemic made the situation more dire.
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Thompson and other residents of his farming community were determined to offer a day-care center option for working parents.
“We became completely centered on solving this problem,” said Mara Hanel, Warren’s mayor from 2018 to 2022. “At one time, we had a shortage of 180 child care slots in a 20-mile radius. We knew that we had to do something.”
Shannon Mortenson, Warren’s city administrator, said the town decided that child care should become an essential service like water, electricity and sanitation.
“We knew that if we lost Little Sprouts, we would also lose revenue and some of our workforce,” she said. “If parents had no options, they would move their families elsewhere.”
The idea of moving to be near child care created stress in the community, said Adam Sparby, whose two daughters and son attend Little Sprouts.
“Everyone was really worried — closing the day-care would mean a lot of us would have to move to another town and commute back and forth to work,” said Sparby, who sells John Deere farm machinery in Warren.
He said that his wife, Ashley, a pharmacist, would often volunteer at Little Sprouts on her lunch hour to help the teachers when the center was short on staff.
“Day-care is such a huge thing for families, so I’m really excited that the tax increase passed and we’ll soon have a new facility,” Sparby said. “It’s a great moment for our town.”
Thompson said the sales tax increase will raise enough funds over 20 years for the town to pay off a $1.6 million loan for the new center but the community still needed to raise another $700,000 to $800,000 to offset price increases that occurred during the pandemic.
“We should meet our goal soon,” he said, noting that businesses and residents have contributed about $600,000 to the effort. “Our community might be small, but people have been incredibly supportive and generous.”
Kelly Pahlen, president of the Little Sprouts board of directors and the mother of two young daughters who have spent time in day-care, said she’s not surprised.
“People have really rallied to make this happen for our town,” she said. “Working parents had started thinking, ‘If this town can’t provide us with child care, can we continue to live here? Will we have to move?’ Now we don’t have to.”