TRAVERSE CITY — Networks Northwest plans to use a boon of $150,000 to develop a region-wide plan to expand child care offerings in the 10-county area.

On March 10, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the allocation of more than $2 million in grants from the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, or ECIC, Child Care Innovation Fund.

Sixteen organizations across the state received $150,000 in funding, including Networks Northwest, an organization based in Traverse City that focuses on workforce development, business and economic development and community development in 10 local counties.

“(Child care) has always been something that has informed our work,” said Jessica Willis, Networks Northwest Chief Program Officer.

Now, Networks Northwest wants to take a multi-faceted, region-wide approach to addressing the child care crisis in northwest Lower Michigan.

With this funding, Networks Northwest will bring together parents, child care providers, local government officials and local child care initiatives in Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties to develop an action plan that will address the regional child care crisis, Willis said.

Networks Northwest will bring an economic perspective to the issue, and work with local employers to learn more about what changes to the current child care setup in the region will help local economies, Willis said. The group has a request for proposal out for an organization to act as the project coordinator to facilitate and organize this process.

The grant is a planning grant, so a large portion of it will go to paying the project coordinator, while some funding will be used to compensate parents and child care providers for their contributions, she said. Some of the grant will be used to fund the technology and Networks Northwest staff time involved in the planning, Willis said.

In bringing together parents, providers and local initiatives that are already working on child care, such as the United Way of Northwest Michigan Child Caring Now Initiative, Networks Northwest hopes to “accelerate best practices,” expand existing child care providers and help establish new providers.

Networks Northwest also wants to explore ways to increase the number of people who are qualified and willing to work in the child care industry, according to Willis.

Another part of the work will be exploring how ordinances or local laws may inadvertently obstruct the development or expansion of child care programs and educating local governments on those impacts. The group will likely use a lot of data in this process, including data on employers and child care deserts in the region, she said.

The group will meet regularly to work on this regional plan, but the frequency and location of the meetings are still up in the air, as Networks Northwest has yet to hire a project coordinator, Willis said.

Parents who are interested in participating can reach out to Willis directly while Networks Northwest seeks out a project coordinator, she said. Networks Northwest is particularly interested in talking to parents with children under the age of 6 with experience in the current child care system.

ECIC distributed more than $225 million to social emotional health, economic stability, safety, physical health and school readiness for children since its founding in 2005.

This round of funding is focused on regional child care planning and bringing economic development leaders, parents and child care leaders together to create a strategic plan to grow their local child care industry. The money for the grants comes from ECIC’s child care innovation fund, which is funded by the Michigan Department of Education’s (MDE) Caring for MI Future Initiative, said ECIC CEO Dawne Bell.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only grown the number of people in Michigan who live in a child care desert, defined as one opening for every three kids, Bell said.

But Bell said she’s “encouraged and excited” by the proposals that ECIC received from across the state for this grant. They sought organizations that could pull together a diverse coalition of individuals in their region to develop their strategic plan, she said.

“We want them to dream about what would it look like, in their region, if they had child care options that worked for every working family,” Bell said.

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