Basalt eyes creative solution to easing child care shortage |

Basalt eyes creative solution to easing child care shortage

Town decides to offer use of land that sat vacant for years for major child care facility

This vacant land between Willits Town Center and the Willits residential neighborhood is owned by the town and reserved for public uses. Town officials want to lease it for a early childhood facility.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

An inauspicious piece of ground that has sat vacant for nearly 20 years at the edge of Willits could be a key to easing the midvalley child care crunch.

The town of Basalt inherited the site — formally known as Sopris Meadows PUD Parcel 2E — when it approved the project that became Willits Town Center. The landowner, Michael Lipkin, gifted the land for public purposes.

The town government has decided the time has come to do something with the valuable site. Child care rose to the top of the list of public uses.

“I think there’s been an identified need with child care,” town manager Ryan Mahoney said. “The need for these services is more prevalent than ever.”

In a 2018 assessment, the town government determined about 15,000 square feet of building space could be accommodated on the site. It is located between Willits Town Center and the Willits residential neighborhood, at the intersection of Willits Lane and Lewis Lane.

The town put out a request for qualifications for potential early childhood facility providers on Nov. 30. The deadline for responses is Jan. 21.

In a nutshell, the town is proposing to provide an affordable lease on the land. It’s looking for an early child care facility provider that would oversee final design, raise funds for its construction and operate the facility. Specifically the town wants an operator that, “Provides affordable, quality year-round childcare that meets the needs of Roaring Fork Valley residents and employers. At a minimum Town Staff expects the facility to provide child care from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.”

The request for proposals later states, “At a minimum Town Staff expects the facility to provide child care for infants through prekindergarten.”

Even with the town providing the land, the project would be expensive. The town estimated the cost at $12.5 million. Mahoney said the project would require a provider teaming with partners, perhaps businesses that would contribute in return for allotted child care slots. Grants would be another funding option. The project could be phased to divide the financial burden.

“As far as the town contributing cash to it, that would be difficult,” Mahoney said.

Basalt is focused on different pursuits. Town voters approved bonding n November to raise revenues for the town to pursue different projects — including streetscape and utility improvements to Midland Avenue, affordable housing and environmentally friendly initiatives.

However, the town will still work with a provider to make the child care project come to fruition. It recently put out a request for proposals for conceptual design for the space.

“I don’t think the town is saying ‘Here’s a plot of ground. Good luck,’” said Shirley Ritter, director of the city of Aspen’s Kids First program and a member of the Basalt Early Childhood Coalition, a group of child care professionals and government officials working on child care issues. The coalition endorsed providing the land and seeking a child care provider. Ritter said that approach would help with fundraising for the facility.

“This has been a conversation the coalition has had in earnest for years,” Ritter said. “You’ve got to have something you can point to and explain.”

Ritter said there is clearly need for a large-scale project. Providers already face more demand than they can handle and the midvalley is on a growth spurt, she noted. In addition, some parents are just now returning to work in-person and need full-time, year-round day care.

Even at the steep cost estimate, town officials expect interest by child care providers in the site.

“We’ve had some verbal interest,” Mahoney said.

Ritter agreed that the concept is attracting attention.

“I think there’s been a lot of conversation,” she said. “It comes down to who makes a proposal.”