Fort Collins, Colorado entered the Cities of Opportunity pilot cohort, an initiative to work in a comprehensive way to improve health and equity, with the intention to focus on housing. The city’s team evolved to focus instead on childcare availability—exemplifying the Cities of Opportunity approach to meet cities where they are. The Fort Collins team intentionally reached out to partners to be supportive and not duplicative of what is already happening in this area.
NLC spoke with Sue Beck-Ferkiss, social policy and housing programs manager with the City of Fort Collins, about how their team identified affordable childcare as a key need and pivoted to most effectively expanding it in their city.
NLC: How did the Fort Collins Cities of Opportunity team identify childcare as a priority?
Beck-Ferkiss: We came to the childcare focus sideways, with the help and exciting conversation with experts at the Cities of Opportunity convening. Fort Collins has a lot of work going on in our community around affordable housing. When we applied, we anticipated that affordable housing would be our focus. But at the in-person convening, the more we drilled in on equity issues that could make an immediate impact, the more childcare arose as something that could make a difference in both economic development and housing.
NLC: Can you speak to how you shaped your specific childcare work to the needs of Fort Collins? What led you to focus on incentives for facilities development?
Beck-Ferkiss: The approach we took was based on where we felt the city’s sphere of influence was most direct. As a funder and convener, we have more control over expanding childcare facilities than the workforce—and there are other partners working addressing childcare workforce issues. Our first idea was to set up development incentives for childcare facilities. After testing the waters with stakeholders, we realized we needed to present more information about how childcare impacts a family’s budget.
NLC: Your team has been working closely with other city and community groups on this topic. How are these collaborations structured?
Beck-Ferkiss: In Fort Collins, we already had an inter-agency, interdisciplinary collaboration for the childcare workforce, through a chamber-led initiative called Talent 2.0. The group includes childcare providers, business leaders, the community college, a local university, and talent recruitment organizations. Many of our partners are working on career development to support and expand the workforce. The Early Childhood Education Council, a local nonprofit partner, has a strong mentoring program with paid stipends for mentors.
NLC: What information or resources do you share, and how does this inform city efforts?
Beck-Ferkiss: The city also has a role to build support for expanding childcare facilities. Our team is working with the city communication and public information office to develop a one-pager on the economic benefits of childcare. This information builds on a county-by-county analysis by the Center for Law and Policy in Colorado of childcare costs as a percentage of family income. We want to inform businesses and residents about the impact that inadequate or unaffordable childcare has in terms of lost labor, talent, and underachievement.
At the same time, we are also looking at how the city can change the land use code to encourage in-home childcare. We have lost a lot of in-home childcare providers in recent years, due to retirement and lack of new providers to replace this important workforce. If we could differentiate between in-home providers and larger childcare centers, in-home centers could be approved and certified much more quickly.
NLC: Are there lessons or recommendations that you would share with other cities, either for childcare specifically, or more broadly from your partnership and engagement process?
Timing is so important for seizing the opportunity, and you have to be looking for it. Our housing market is very tight right now, and many residents can’t afford housing in part due to hugely overpaying for childcare. It’s an equity issue and an economic issue – both very salient at this time.
Having the right people involved is also important. We brought on a new staff person who was deeply looped into existing childcare initiatives in the city. This allowed us to identify how the City of Fort Collins’s government could truly add value.
NLC: Sue, you mentioned that your background is in housing. Is there anything you learned through the Cities of Opportunity childcare work that surprised you?
Beck-Ferkiss: I think it can be an advantage to operate outside our usual field. My housing background means that I bring a set of fresh eyes to childcare. Without subsidized childcare slots, Coloradoans pay more for childcare than for college. I have learned a lot through looking at different types of childcare facilities, services and needs, and investigating mismatches for which we can seek policy solutions.
About the Author: Anne Li is a health and wellness associate at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.