PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon is in dire need of more child care providers, but providers in the Portland metro area say things like zoning regulations, limited property, and lack of financial assistance make expanding their facilities an uphill battle. 

Troy Tate founded The Sunshine Center Childcare and Preschool in North Portland 11 years ago. For the last eight years, he’s been trying to convert the basement of the church next door into an additional child care facility. 

Troy Tate, the owner of The Sunshine Center, says he’s been working on expanding his child care center into the basement of the church next door for the last 8 years. Photo taken Aug. 2, 2021 (KOIN)

He’s had to meet sanitation requirements, remodel the kitchen, upgrade the bathrooms to meet the occupancy, and create ground-level exits. 

In all, he thinks he’s invested more than $200,000 in the project. 

“It gets costly to borrow, you know, and childcare – there’s a fine line in what you can charge and what makes you competitive in the marketplace for families who do need childcare and how much you can ultimately profit to pay off a loan,” Tate said. 

He says it’s difficult for care providers to even qualify for a loan if they’re operating out of their own homes. 

Thankfully, he’s been applying for and receiving grants over the years, which has helped cover the cost. Still, he says not all care providers know how to write grants and obtaining funding can be an even greater challenge for care providers who speak English as their second language. 

Tate says if it wasn’t for a grant he received from Prosper Portland, he never would have been able to afford the renovations at the new facility. 

On top of navigating finances, Tate says there are also a lot of hoops care providers need to jump through to make sure their facility can be licensed. He needs a fire safety inspection and sanitation inspection and those have been hard to nail down during the pandemic. 

The Sunshine Center Childcare and Preschool, photo taken Aug. 2, 2021. (KOIN)

He was hoping the new facility, which will be able to provide care for 20 more children, would be open by the start of the school year. Now, it’s looking like Oct. 1 at the earliest. 

Tate’s situation isn’t unique. Other care providers around the Portland Metro area say they’ve also had trouble expanding or finding a new location. 

Crystal Beran is the founder of Sprout and Spark preschool in Southwest Portland. She started the preschool in 2019 and after seeing how great a need there is for childcare, she wanted to open a new facility. 

“I just started getting inquiry after inquiry after inquiry, and we have 16 spots available and it was like, OK, this is a huge need,” Beran said. 

She soon realized how difficult it is to find a space suitable for a large childcare facility in Portland. She says there are a lot of restaurants that have closed down in the last year that have lawn areas where she could envision a playground, but they’re not zoned properly for child care. Rezoning the building and upgrading it to meet licensing requirements can get expensive. 

“The costs become out of reach for anybody who is working in childcare,” Beran said. “I mean this is not, there’s not a lot of money in childcare.” 

Beran thought she struck the jackpot when she found an available property that used to be a school in Lake Oswego. She jumped on it, but soon found other issues standing in her way. Clackamas County didn’t have recent blueprints of the property. The outdated blueprints showed a pool that’s since been filled in and no evidence of an existing building Beran planned to use. 

Beran was hoping to offer both preschool and toddler care at the new facility, but with the blueprint issues, the plans for toddler care are on hold. She’s hoping to revisit the idea in November. 

Fortunately, one city official ruled that since the property had been used as a school, it can continue to be used as a school, but said they would still like updated architectural drawings. 

Beran is still optimistic the new preschool will be running by Sept. 7. 

Crystal Gwyn is also staying optimistic about her challenging situation. Gwyn is the executive director of Childswork Learning Center in Southeast Portland. 

The care facility has operated out of a building owned by St. Stephen Catholic Church for the last 16 years and currently provides for 250 families. 

Crystal Gwyn stands outside the former location of Childswork Learning Center on July 26, 2021. Childswork’s lease ended at St. Stephen Catholic Church on July 31, 2021. (KOIN)

In 2020, the priest at the church told the school he was terminating their lease five years early, on July 31, 2021.  

A real estate attorney representing the parish told KOIN 6 News that under the terms of the lease with Childswork, either party had the right to end the lease early with one year’s notice. The attorney said the parish has other plans for the space more directly connected to its core ministry. 

For the last 12 months, Gwyn has been searching for a space large enough to move into, but didn’t find anything that could accommodate all her children. Instead, the school split into two locations – a Montessori in Montavilla and a temporary location at Portland Community College Southeast.  

“We have 23,000 square feet now, and we fill every inch of it,” Gwyn said during an interview July 26. “But even to find something that’s 10,000 or 12,000, square feet, we just literally haven’t found a single facility in our footprint.” 

Children at Childswork Learning Center hold up their projects for a picture on July 26, 2021. (KOIN)

Like Beran, Gwyn says that many places that are large enough or that have adequate outdoor space aren’t zoned correctly. They’ve considered a few churches but found that the required renovations would devour their savings. 

She’s hoping their temporary location at PCC Southeast will buy them the time to upgrade a facility or rezone a more permanent location that will work for them. 

“It’s incredibly challenging and I think we’ve learned that this is going to be a much larger and more concerted effort,” Gwyn said. 

Overall, all three child care providers say they’d like to see more grants and other funding options available to them when it comes to developing new spaces for care facilities. They say adequate funding is paramount if the state plans to move out of its current status as a “child care desert.”

They’d also like to see city and county building and development services expedite zoning applications and permitting for child care facilities. 

Oregon’s Early Learning Division says it knows that access to facilities continues to be a barrier to expanding child care throughout the state. The federal COVID-19 relief funds that were designated for child care during the pandemic cannot be used for capital investments. The ELD says it has not received any additional funds to support moving costs or capital investments at this time.

The EDL says some communities are working with lawmakers to use a portion of state and local American Rescue Plan Act funds for capital improvement projects. 

The EDL also says it has licensing specialists throughout the state who work closely with providers throughout the licensing process. These specialists help connect providers with local jurisdictions. Child Care Resource & Referral entities are also located regionally and can provide technical assistance.

The Portland Bureau of Development Services told KOIN 6 News child care providers can check the zoning of a location they’re interested in and said they have a video online explaining how this can be done in Portland. 

A public information officer for the Bureau of Development Services said he was not aware of any efforts to expedite zoning applications for child care facilities.