Ann Arbor SPARK Leads the Way with the Livingston and Washtenaw Child Care Coalition

A new initiative funded by allocations from the state legislature through the Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC) is looking to address childcare issues through the work of the Livingston and Washtenaw Child Care Coalition.

Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic development organization, is leading the coalition. Composed of representatives from “businesses, child care providers, municipal partners, education partners, and families,” according to the Ann Arbor SPARK website, the coalition began meeting in May.

Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff of Ann Arbor SPARK Phil Santer said the ECIC wanted an organization like SPARK to lead the way because child care systems have been part —but not the core— of the work the organization has been doing in relation to economic development.

“This was an opportunity to try and say, ‘Let’s make these needs a little bit more centered as part of the overall economic development process for a community just given how impactful child care and lack of childcare could be on an overall economy,’” Santer said.

Though Santer said child care needs have typically been addressed at the state or national level, the idea of the coalition is to look at it as a regional issue. This has allowed the coalition to develop specific responses.

“One of the main takeaways [of the coalition’s early meetings] was looking at selling and the land-use requirements on child care centers in Washington County,” Santer said. “What are some of the factors affecting child care centers and their ability to grow and expand?”

This framework for looking at child care issues locally has helped the coalition set realistic expectations for themselves.

“I don’t.…know if we’re going to be able to say, ‘Let’s change the overall systemic issues that are related to this.’ That might be a little bit too high,” Santer said. “But the fact that we can say, ‘Okay, does it make sense to try and have a more cohesive definition around child care centers and how they’re treated from a zoning perspective?’ Sure, maybe that’s an opportunity.”

A key opportunity offered by the coalition has been to unite a variety of stakeholders in order to encourage connection. So far, this strategy has paid off as it’s become clear that the current system is challenging for everyone involved to navigate.

“One of the things that’s so challenging about child care is that some of the market seems a little broken as it relates to providing access to care for children and for their families,” Santer said. “It creates all these decisions that each family has to go through, or parents have to go through, in terms of, ‘Am I going to keep working if I’m in a two-parent household? How else can I leverage family members and other people that are actually, frankly, the main providers [of child care]?’ Then, what are the factors affecting child care centers that are unique that might be different from other small businesses.”

According to Santer, the community by large has been supportive of the coalition’s ongoing efforts. Throughout the coalition’s inception and ongoing involvement in Livingston and Washtenaw counties, its participants (including parents themselves) have tried to engage with local parents in a variety of ways, including through surveys.

“People have been really interested in the work,” Santer said. “The survey responses that we’ve been getting back so far have been amazing. People are energized by the chance to think and dig into some of the issues related to this.”

As for further ways community members can participate in the coalition’s work, Santer said interested parties should sign up to receive e-updates to stay up to date with the coalition’s latest findings and announcements.