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Gina Young, director of Community Daycare
Gina Young, director of Community Day Care downtown, is also vice chairwoman of the North Park Children's Center board.

Supporters of a proposed children’s center in downtown Billings are thinking big.

They are raising money to finance a feasibility study of the North Park Children’s Center, which could cost $10 million to get started and would provide day care, early childhood education and intervention services for 350 children.

The idea grew out of conversations between Kathy Kelker, director of Billings Head Start, and Marty Connell, president of the Billings Industrial Revitalization District, which takes in most of the area between central downtown and MetraPark, including the Head Start campus across from North Park.

Connell and other property owners who make up the BIRD are located in a tax increment financing district formally known as the East Billings Urban Renewal District, which was established by the city of Billings four years ago.

Connell thinks the district has more economic potential than any other area in Montana because of all the infrastructure already in place. Adding a large, first-class children’s center to the district would be an important piece of making the area attractive to businesses looking to start up or relocate within the district, Connell said.

“The only way you’re going to catch any fish is to put a lot of hooks in the water,” he said.

A key partner behind the North Park Children’s Center is a business already established in the district — First Interstate Bank, which in 2009 opened a regional operations center at 1800 Sixth Ave. N., just across Sixth Avenue North from Head Start.

Five employees from the operations center are on the children’s center board of directors, and the First Interstate Bank Foundation gave the group a challenge grant of $25,000.

If the board can match that grant with other donations, it will have nearly enough to conduct a feasibility study to determine the level of need, set cost estimates, identify funding sources, figure out how much land and what kind of building would be needed and establish fee schedules and revenue projections, among other considerations.

Kelker said the board would like to have the study completed by fall. But the North Park Children’s Center’s application for nonprofit status has to be approved before the study can begin, and it is taking more time than expected.

Kelly McCarthy, a business process analyst at the First Interstate operations center, said the bank is interested in the idea because it has 300 employees, many of whom need child care services, but also because “it’s really a community bank” that sees the larger need for such a service.

McCarthy, who is also on the board of the BIRD, came up with the $10 million estimate, based partly on the number of children who would be served and state and federal requirements for such facilities.

Candace Staley, manager at the operations center, is also on the children’s center board. She said First Interstate and its employees “would really like to see this project go.”

“We have a very strong commitment to the North Side and a strong partnership with Head Start,” she said.

The master plan for the East Billings Urban Renewal District envisions vibrant industrial and commercial activity in the district, as well as the creation of affordable workforce housing. Kelker said it only makes sense to provide additional child care, which is already scarce and expensive in the area.

Head Start would be a partner, she said, but its plan is to establish two new Head Start classrooms in the new center and keep its existing program, with 260 children, in the old North Park School.

The North Park Children’s Center wouldn’t necessarily be near Head Start or North Park. Kelker said it could be anywhere in the urban renewal district, in a renovated existing building or in a new one.

Connell said that, to have enough indoor space, playgrounds and parking, the children’s center would need at least a square block, possibly two. Having the center in the district would make it available to people downtown and on the North and South sides, as well as to Heights commuters who use Fourth and Sixth avenues to get to and from work.

Kelker is the chairwoman of the children’s center board. She is a past chair of the School District 2 Board of Trustees; former executive director of Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids; and for years an assistant professor of special education at Montana State University Billings.

The vice chairwoman of the children’s center board is Gina Young, director of Community Daycare, located in the First Congregational Church downtown. Young said the need for child care in Billings is huge.

“The expense of child care is so high — many times it’s more than the person is paying for their mortgage,” she said.

And the North Park Children’s Center would offer more than just day care, she said, because of plans to offer special-education services, Head Start classes, some health care for sick children and mental health, occupational, physical and speech therapy.

“It’s awesome,” Young said. “I think it’s wonderful to put something like that all under one roof.”

Kelker said financial support for the center would come mainly from foundations and employers in the area. Many of their clients would be eligible for subsidized child care, and children in Head Start would be funded through that program.

The one certainty, Kelker said, is that the demand for such a center would be great.

“I imagine, if it comes about, it’ll be a matter of fighting people off with sticks,” she said.

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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