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From idea to reality: Local child care project ready for kids

Ashlee Mettler has wanted to provide child care since she became an aunt.

And thanks to a concerted community effort, she and another provider get the chance to do just that later this month.

Three sites for child care in Koochiching County are nearly ready for kids, with Mettler’s site at the KOOTASCA Community Action Inc. building the first to start, July 20.

JoAnn Smith, of the Small Business Development Center, said the dire need for child care in Koochiching County became clear a few years ago.

And she, and others, decided to do something about it.

As a result, in 2018 the Koochiching Resource Council was formed, and accepted into the Rural Child Care Innovation Program through First Children’s finance.

At that time, a town hall meeting drew people who needed child care and those who wanted to offer it, but could not afford to; a study documented the shortage was real; and a visioning session helped to develop a “pod” model of child care for the area.

“It’s exciting to see that we’ve made progress with this group,” Smith said Monday, showing the site at KOOTASCA, where Mettler is ready for business.

Community collaborative models, or “pod” models take what is normally offered in a family home setting and places it in a commercial setting, Smith said. The idea of one larger center in the county to offer child care just didn’t make sense because of the county’s size, and because it would require multiple, separate rooms, several staff and that would be unaffordable, she added. Also, the license under the pod model use regulations for “family” based child care which are less stringent than “center” based, Smith said.

Smith said the model works well at the KOOTASCA Community Action building at 2232 2nd Ave E, International Falls, where Mettler will provide the service.

And two rooms, with two different providers, are nearly ready for child care businesses at the former Pineview Regional Recovery space at Koochiching Health Services in Littlefork.

Affordability for the providers is key, Smith said.

“Part of the partnership is creating a space that is affordable because when you look at how much they make, they make — if that — minimum wage, with all the responsibilities they would have to do as a business,” Smith said.

Rent at the KOOTASCA building is $125 per month, with $350 at Littlefork; both prices include utilities.

The idea of the operating child care service isn’t new to Mettler, but came to the forefront when she was laid off from United HealthCare in December.

“I was unsure what my next step was, and heard from a few people about this project and so I reached out to Maureen (Rosato, KOOTASCA Community Action director) and we touched base after the holidays and since then, a quick interview and we’re good to go,” she said.

Mettler can offer space to 10 children the first year under her license, and 12 the next year.

She is taking applications for the 10 positions now, and people may contact her through Facebook or call her at 218-240-4303 to apply.

Mettler set up the room with donations from community and family, and material from KOOTASCA’s former child center. She has set it up with play, craft, kitchen and nap areas.

She said she got help in getting her room ready by the very people who sparked her desire to offer child care: Her nieces and nephews made the beds and pillows.

“They were the inspiration behind my wanting to do this,” she said. “I just love kids. Since my first niece came along I just fell in love.”

The KOOTASCA building offers a gymnasium, a gated playground, and connected bathroom.

“I like to be organized and have stuff on my walls,” she said looking around the room, which was inspected by International Falls officials.

At Littlefork, Janessa Smith will be a provider in one room, and space for another provider is being marketed.

“Littlefork needs a lot of care, too, as they bring their kids (to the Falls) because child care isn’t there,” Smith said, adding she’s working with Carrie Claybundy from Koochiching County Health Services.

Jobs and kids

Meanwhile, Smith who works as a SBDC consultant with the Koochiching Economic Development Authority, said the lack of child care in the county has a far reaching effect. The lack of affordable child care in the area means that a lot of jobs go unfilled, and a lot of incomes are affected.

“To create economic development, one of the things we found was that there is a lot of job vacancies, but why are people not applying for them?” she said. “They can’t find a place for their child, that’s affordable, while they go to work. We’re trying to meet that need: Creating jobs for providers and also creating a workforce for that.”

That earlier survey documented that a lot of mothers were forced to be stay-at-home moms because they could not find child care, Smith said. In addition, the survey show that 300 or so slots are needed in the infant and toddler categories of child care.

The child care project was delayed a bit because of the pandemic, but is now back on track, Smith added.

“She’s done a great job,” said Smith of Mettler, as she looked around the room. “She’s done a lot of work.”

Mettler said much of the credit goes to Smith, who took the project and ran with it.

Smith spread the credit around, adding that she got a lot of help from Patricia Welsch, business development specialist from First Children’s Finance with the Rural Child Care Innovation Program; and And Rosato, and Chris Hautala, compliance manager at KOOTASCA Community Action serve as oversight for the Community Collaborative Child Care.

And the project is ongoing. Smith continues to seek additional provider spaces in the community.


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Patriotic waves

RAINY LAKE — Boats covered in patriotic decor came from all directions to gather in a Rainy Lake bay Saturday for the eighth annual Grindstone Island Boat Parade.

A boat featuring life-size red Solo Cups designed by the Palm family took first place in the event that cruised past area resorts. The family was awarded the traveling trophy given each year to parade champions.

“The weather was perfect and it was amazing to see all the boats that participated along with all the spectators watching and cheering,” said Tony and Leesa Palm. “Thanks goes to the Mannausaus and Roches for organizing the event and we are honored to have been chosen the winners. My daughter, Clara, was excited that her hard work on the red Solo Cup paid off.”

Alyce Mannausau, who has helped organize the parade over the years, said the 2020 event “turned out amazing.” The parade stems from the 2013 idea of Larry Roche, Mannausau’s brother-in-law, who died in May after a brief battle with cancer.

“Larry would want us to do this,” Mannausau said. “We thought about taking a year off, but people need this, this year more than ever.”

Mannausau said the turnout featured about 270 boats — a mixture of parade participants and spectators.

“With everything going on this year, we knew this was something people needed,” she previously told The Journal. “Larry loved the boat parade so much.”


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International Falls council OKs Elk's event

An annual scholarship corn and brat fundraiser by the Elks Lodge No. 1599 will be planned as usual, but like other events, will be canceled should the pandemic situation require.

In its 17th year, the Aug. 14 fundraiser supports a long running scholarship program that has provided more than $80,000 to Koochiching County high school seniors. In 2018, the event raised about $4,000 and served 550 people.

The corn and brat feed is held on the portion of Third Street in front of the Elks Lodge No. 1599, 215 Third St., which is closed to traffic for the feed.

Tim MacKay, lodge exalted ruler, told the council Monday the plans need to move forward now for the permitting process for the road closure.

MacKay said the lodge is seeking city authorization to conduct the event, should state guidelines on gatherings allow it.

"To-go" boxes will be available regardless of whether the public gathering is allowed, he said.

Each year, the city provides picnic table for the event. This year, MacKay asked for additional tables to allow for social distancing.

Chicken vote

The council heard from Mayor Harley Droba that he assisted a resident to organize a petition to allow city voters to decide whether residents should be allowed to keep chickens in the city limits.

A petition containing 138 signatures of city residents is required to place the question on the November ballot.

Droba said the resident contacted him to say he had been cited for having chickens in the city, contrary to city ordinances. The resident said he knew the topic was on a recent city council agenda, and assumed the council had OKd keeping chickens.

While Droba said he is neither for nor against the idea of keeping chickens in the city, he said he is all for assisting residents to bring issues forward.

Allowing city voters to decide the issue makes sense, he said, because the idea of allowing chickens has been brought to the council a few times in the past.

Blight action

The council reviewed a blight report for a period up until July 2 that includes a log of 237 violations, including 100 unlicensed/inoperable vehicles.

City Attorney Steve Shermoen told the council on June 30, the city sent 32 notices by certified mail to owners with vehicle violations, which gives the owner another seven days to correct the violation.

The log also showed that 10 properties were referred to the city attorney's office for review; and 23 extensions were provided to properties, with a weekly followups by city staff.

Councilor Leon Ditsch credited the work of Fire Chief Adam Mannausau, Firefighter Engineer Jared Baldwin and Shermoen for taking on the blight issues and compiling the log.

In addition, the council approved serving notice of blight violations to William Bradburn, owner of the structure at 900 11th St.

Shermoen said the building was damaged in a 2018 fire, and has not been repaired, regardless of city requests.

Shermoen said the notice, after served, is filed with district court, and allows 20 days to answer the legal order.

Should Bradburn not appear in court, Shermoen said the court can allow the city to demolish the building under its demo program. Should Bradburn contest the order, he has 60 days to make required repairs, he said, adding the court can add to the owner's property taxes the cost of the demolition, should it be ordered.

Payment delay

The council agreed to allow delayed payments to the city of a loan it made, in partnership with Koochiching County, in 2016 to fund a third cold box for the cold weather testing facility.

The issue is to be brought back to the table in November, when the next payment is due.

Earlier cash flow problems last year, combined with a loss of more than $40,000 revenue this year because of the cancellation of vehicle testing as a result of the pandemic.

Koochiching Economic Development authority Director Paul Nevanen told the council Monday two-thirds of the KEDA's office expenses are paid from cold weather testing revenue.

And, he said concerns are already being expressed about the cold weather testing season for next year because of travel limitations caused by the pandemic.

Nevanen noted the KEDA has received no public funding for more than two years.

Other business

In other business, the council Monday:

  • Awarded a contract for $214,400 to Shannon's Plumbing and Heating Inc. for a steam to hot water heating system at the Falls Public Library.
  • Approved subordination agreement of a Small Cities Development rehabilitation deferred loan repayment and mortgage issued earlier to Daniel and Deborah Griffith to allow refinancing a mortgage through Bremer Bank.
  • Accepted a Human Resources Committee recommendation to approve a public works supervisor job description and authorized advertising to fill the position.
  • Awarded a contract for $36,800 to Shannon's Plumbing and Heating to install a flammable waste trap at the city's street garage.
  • Heard from city Administrator Ken Anderson the city received a state grant for $349,000 to help improve the infrastructure around the city's Business Park. The grant will be used to upgrade 22nd Street, with blacktop applied next summer.