The American Dream, in the minds of many, is to find a great place to live and raise a family.
Seaside, Oregon is one such place. Situated along the Oregon coastline, Seaside has beautiful, sweeping views, a picturesque beach, and a great community vibe. The area has all the quality-of-life amenities on parents’ checklists, including an abundant supply of opportunities for recreation.
There was just one thing missing, and it was a big factor in the “raising a family” equation: daycare. The town of Seaside, for all its advantages, was considered a “childcare desert,” the term used to describe a community with more than three times as many children under the age of five as available slots in licensed childcare facilities.
This is not an uncommon situation— unfortunately, it is occurring in many communities nationwide. According to ChildcareDeserts.org, a Center for American Progress project, 51 percent of all people in the United States live in a childcare desert. In Oregon, that number climbs to 60 percent.
A lack of daycare drives a crippling ripple effect on an area’s economy and quality of life. With limited childcare options, parents often must travel further from their homes to find daycare facilities. This can affect the types of employment they are able to pursue and can even prevent them from finding work. It can give them just cause for moving out of an area after having children – or discourage them from moving in altogether.
“It is not necessarily a unique problem,” says Skyler Archibald, executive director of Sunset Empire Park & Recreation District, or SEPRD, a local government department that maintains recreational assets and develops programming for the town of Seaside and nearby communities. “We have a high cost of housing and living. Having two parents who work full-time jobs to support a family is common, and there was a waitlist for every available preschool.”
Even the area’s existing preschool programs faced numerous challenges, according to Archibald. Administrators struggled not only to run programs but to maintain both staff and the necessary licensure. That cut deep into budgets, forcing preschools to charge exponentially higher fees. What was needed was an affordable program that was available to families living in the area.
Beyond these challenges, the community also needed a venue to promote health and recreation for residents of all ages, abilities, and cultures. They also wanted to drive economic impact outside of the peak tourist season, which runs from June through September. To keep the events they already had in place and build new income streams, the Sunset Empire area needed a bold new strategy.
Image courtesy of Skyler Archibald/SEPRD
To help tackle those challenges, SEPRD turned to The Sports Facilities Companies (SFC), a company that partners with communities to plan, develop, and operate sports and recreation facilities. The two organizations began evaluating existing resources with an eye on how they might be used.
SFC and its project partner, Scott Edwards Architecture (SEA), designed a highest and best use (HBU) model for Sunset Recreation Center. HBU modeling involves assessing the ability of the existing facility to support new and current programs that drive SEPRD’s goals from a physical and financial standpoint. They also examined associated uses for the neighboring Aquatic Center and Broadway Park to meet the recreational needs of the community and to broaden its economic reach and ability to feasibly support sports tourism events. Based on analysis coming from this work, a program plan was developed that called for the facility to be broken into four components that aligned with SEPRD’s goals and community needs. This included spaces for administration, gymnasiums and locker rooms, and community recreation – as well as early childhood care.
“The first thing we wanted to do was expand our preschool,” says Archibald. “We had cut one of the rooms we were using in half in order to create a second room; unfortunately, we still weren’t meeting the demand.”
A local middle school and the available space in the Sunset Recreation Center provided a ready-made answer.
“We rented space from the middle school and ultimately wound up purchasing it (the middle school property),” said Archibald. “It has worked out really well for us.”
Separate spaces were carved out for preschoolers and after-school care programs for elementary school-age students. This was done in tandem with the addition of an infant and toddler room and indoor gymnasium space. This space restructuring created the programming areas needed to accomplish their objective and doubled their capacity to serve children.
While this had a profound impact on the functionality of the space, it is just a step towards their ultimate goal. Currently, SEPRD is working in partnership with SFC and SEA to develop a master plan that will serve as a roadmap for renovations and expanded use of the Sunset Recreation Center.
“I know exactly how committed our staff has been to these programs, and how crucial they are to its success. From teachers to preschool assistants to after-school rec leaders – those are all the people who are showing up and doing the really hard stuff day after day, even though there are lots of employment opportunities in other places. I am very proud and inspired by these people and I try, and encourage others to try, to build a culture of appreciation and acknowledgment for the important work they are doing.”
Other communities reach out to Archibald periodically for advice; however, he notes the situation in Seaside was unique, in part, because the parks department didn’t have to compete with other departments for attention. “We have a great coalition of support and a great network; all of us were heavily invested and interested in solving this problem. We have hospitals, school districts, Head Start, a supportive elected board of directors, and plenty of others, and we have the very best resources.”
When reflecting on the impact of the program, Archibald added, “What we started to see was that kids in the childcare program were flourishing, maturing, and becoming so much more kindergarten-ready. This is a niche that our community was desperately begging for us to fill, and we have.”