Crunch time for Charlotte child care

Plus: Convention Center renovations moving along amid fears of construction-industry slowdown; 5 states ban indoor dining; Sycamore Brewing holiday beer cans go naughty again

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Lower enrollment, higher costs and expiring subsidies imperil a vital part of the region’s economic recovery; ‘How can families work?’

By Ely Portillo

For child care providers like Kristen Idacavage, life has settled into a new routine since the start of the pandemic. But there are reminders everywhere of how Covid-19 is still disrupting the child care industry in Charlotte.

It’s not just the daily temperature checks, or the omnipresent face masks, or the fact that no parents are allowed in the school. For Idacavage, school director of Kids ‘R’ Kids of Charlotte off W.T. Harris Boulevard, it’s also the price of gloves: Child care centers go through a lot of plastic gloves, between diaper changes, cleaning and food preparation. They used to cost $50 a case. Now, they’re $125 —  if the supplier can even get any, a search that requires driving as far as Virginia.

“It’s insane,” said Idacavage, who has worked the past eight months to keep her center open and staffed as enrollment fluctuated wildly. “Trying to focus on the things you can control, instead of the things you can’t, helps.”

Local child care centers are facing an array of complicated challenges that boil down to simple math: Enrollment is down. Costs are up. The latest round of aid will run out soon, and nobody knows when more is coming. Although only a small number of local child care centers have closed permanently, many are struggling, and state and local officials warn more closures could be on the way this winter. 

That matters for more than the tens of thousands of families who send their kids to child care each day. Without a robust child care system, many parents would struggle to work full-time, further imperiling the economic rebound. 

“A strong and safe child care system is essential to our recovery,” N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said in October.

Struggles with enrollment: At Kids ‘R’ Kids of Charlotte, attendance dropped from about 275 children in March to 40 in April, as lockdown orders took effect. Idacavage scrambled to keep parents enrolled with discount offers to hold spots for those who kept their kids home. Now, they’re back to about 210 children. 

“It’s been a gradual build-back,” Idacavage said. “We’ve just been riding it out. We’re hanging in there.”

She’s one of thousands of workers trying to keep the child care system running in the face of a dual pandemic punch: lower enrollment combined with higher costs to clean and staff facilities. 

As the pandemic first gripped the U.S. this spring, panicked parents pulled their kids out en masse. There were predictions of a massive wave of child care center closures. That hasn’t happened so far, largely due to a big infusion of local, state and federal support. Since April, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has funneled $80M worth of grants to child care programs throughout the state, helping many stay afloat. 

Funding uncertain: But the latest round of aid — $35M in federal funds announced by Cooper in October — will run out in the next two months. After that, no one’s sure what will happen, with talks over a new, multi-trillion dollar national aid package stalled in Congress.

“Without further stabilization funding for child care programs and the continued slow return to child care, we are concerned there could be program closures this winter, which would impact the child care infrastructure for our state’s long term recovery efforts,” said N.C. DHHS spokesperson Kelly Haight Connor.

Locally, Mecklenburg County has seen a net loss of nine programs, totaling 411 child care slots, since the start of the pandemic, said Janet Singerman, president of Child Care Resources Inc. That’s the private, nonprofit agency that administers the county’s child care subsidy program and tracks child care statistics, works with providers and helps parents find care. 

“Thinking back to March, about what was at risk, we were concerned about much more significant losses,” Singerman said. 

But there’s still a big risk: Enrollment in child care centers is down by about half in Mecklenburg County from February (including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools-based before- and after-school care). 

That tracks with national data from Child Care Aware of America, which found attendance across the South dropped by more than 80% in April. It rebounded to just above 50% of pre-pandemic levels by August.

Statewide statistics point to a big disparity in who’s able to work from home: 84% of children who receive a child care subsidy are attending, according to NC DHHS. 

But just 51% of children whose parents pay full tuition — more likely to be higher earners in professions allowing remote work — are attending child care statewide. 

“Child care operates on razor-thin budgets all of the time, and now it’s that much sharper,” Singerman said. “Child care is an underfunded system already.”

Ready to go: Enrollment in child care centers has fallen by half since the start of the pandemic, but many parents count on them to be able to work. (Photo courtesy of Ely Portillo)

Child care programs have long faced problems such as low wages, high fixed costs for operators, and a reputation among parents of being difficult and stressful to navigate, full of waitlists and tuition bills that rival or surpass a mortgage. 

It’s more clear than ever how vital child care is for the economy, as anyone who spent this spring trying to work with a screaming toddler at home 24/7 can attest. (I’m in that category.) 

Beyond the economic necessity of having a place for workers to send their youngest children during the day, child care facilities also teach children during the early years when their unformed brains are growing the fastest.

Idacavage puts it simply: “We’re brain-builders.”

But access to high-quality child care isn’t cheap. The average annual cost for infant and toddler center-based care is almost $14,000 in Mecklenburg County.

Despite the sticker shock new parents encounter, child care programs often struggle financially. That’s because they don’t scale up well like many other industries. A four- or five-star program (the large majority of Mecklenburg’s are in these categories) has to have at least one teacher for every four infants. So no matter how much enrollment grows, fixed costs grow quickly too, limiting profit potential. 

At the same time, the child care workforce — largely female and women of color —  remains underpaid. Median pay in the Charlotte region is $11 an hour for early childhood teachers. That means many of the people who spend all day singing and reading to our babies, changing their diapers and encouraging their first words make about $22,000 a year.

Still, almost all of the child care centers in Mecklenburg County have reopened. Many have stayed open during the whole pandemic. 

“Child care has never been closed, and most of our workforce comes to work without employer-paid healthcare,” Singerman said. “Think about that: These are women who are working for somewhere around $11 an hour, they are on the front lines — and their work has been heroic.”

Casey Mullis, school administrator at Providence Preparatory School, said they lost about 110 of 350 children while the program was closed in April and May. They’ve since built back much of their enrollment, but other challenges loom, especially staffing. 

“We lost a significant amount of teachers because they don’t have anyone to watch their children,” Mullis said. 

The remaining staff has been working harder than ever: meeting children at the door to run temperature screens and symptom checks, sanitizing the playground between each class, keeping up the other enhanced cleaning requirements, all while continuing to teach hundreds of kids for a full workday. 

Now, with cold and flu season, there are more uncertainties. Any staff member with the sniffles or exposed to someone who might be sick has to stay home and isolate until they know what they have. Test results can take days to come back. And if a staff member comes into close contact with a confirmed coronavirus case, they have to quarantine for 14 days. 

“Who do I have to go work in that classroom for 14 days? That’s tricky,” Mullis said. 

If there’s a silver lining, she said, it’s that they’ve found new ways to connect with families who can no longer see their kid’s classroom daily or attend the Halloween parties, Thanksgiving lunches and Christmas sing-a-longs that used to be how parents met and mingled with the teachers. 

And she hopes the current crisis highlights the need for more focus and long-term funding to support the child care sector. 

Idacavage, of Kids ‘R’ Kids, said she thinks the fall and winter will look a lot like the spring, fraught with uncertainty. Her school was able to keep most of its staff employed, though some high-risk staff members took leave. Now, almost all of the staff is back. 

But she’s concerned about the long-term effects the pandemic will have on recruiting and hiring teachers in an already challenging industry. 

“Our industry was already in a staffing crisis,” she said. “If I don’t have teachers here, I can’t serve families. How can families work if they don’t have care?”

Ely Portillo is assistant director at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. He previously spent a decade as a reporter at The Charlotte Observer.


Today’s supporting sponsors are AccruePartners

… and T.R. Lawing Realty:


Convention center expansion moves forward, amid slower outlook for construction

With no big conventions in Charlotte, the $127M overhaul of the Charlotte Convention Center is moving forward quickly.

Edison Cassels, president of of construction firm Edison Foard, tells The Ledger that most of the exterior work is completed and work is now shifting to the inside of the building, where crews have started demolition on the convention halls.

“The meeting spaces will be bigger and more airy,” he says. “The corridors will be more inviting. There will be a lot of light in the space, which is a big improvement from what you currently have there.”

The project is adding 50,000 s.f. of meeting room and other space.

Cassels said Covid has had some different effects: “While it has slowed down some material deliveries, it has allowed us to accelerate some of the work on the project and get a little ahead of our plan.”

Two views of convention center: Construction in an interior courtyard (top, photo from webcam); drone view with cranes from College Street (bottom, photo courtesy of The 5 and 2 Project).

Construction outlook: While Edison Foard has plenty of work at the moment, Cassels says he senses a slowdown might be coming: “The residential guys are really busy. The commercial guys, there are fewer opportunities than there were 6 months ago and certainly 12 months ago. There are opportunities, but it’s a tightening market.” He says he closely watches an index that tracks architectural billing, and that architects seem to be drawing up fewer projects — and that will trickle down to fewer buildings to build.

The convention center’s expansion is on track to be completed in October 2021. It’s a joint project among Holder Construction, Edison Foard, and R.J. LeeperTM


Sycamore Brewing: You can’t spell ‘Christmas’ without the ‘S’ and ‘M’

Just five months after state alcohol regulators slapped it with a $1,000 fine for an unauthorized risqué beer can label, Charlotte’s Sycamore Brewing is back with another provocative holiday design.

You might recall the brew-haha last year around this time when Alcohol Law Enforcement headed to Sycamore in search of evidence after receiving a tip that the beer cans on its winter ale contained images of reindeer having sex. (The Ledger later reported 🔒 that the “tip” came from a certain well-known local TV reporter who was merely doing his job seeking information.) An ALE agent seized a four-pack, and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission in June fined Sycamore for using a label that was not approved.

Sycamore unveiled this year’s cans of Christmas Cookie Winter Ale on Saturday, and while they contain no images of reindeer engaged in lewd acts, they do have what appear to be holiday gingerbread men engaged in some light bondage.

A close inspection seems to show images that include smiling gingerbread men with wrist cuffs, body harnesses, masks and paddles. One appears chained to a torture rack shaped as a beer keg. Other gingerbread men appear handcuffed or chained to each other:

State regulations prohibit “(a)ny statement, design, device or representation which is obscene or indecent” on malt beverage labels. The ABC Commission could not be reached over the weekend to say whether the state approved this beer-can label. Sycamore told The Ledger on Sunday that the state approved the label. [[UPDATE 11/16/20 at 11:32 a.m.: An ABC Commission spokesman confirms that the label was approved.]]

On the web page where customers can order the beer, Sycamore wrote: “Cheers to a spanking great holiday season!” —TM


Reminder about The Ledger’s charity shout-out

We’re reminding you that the deadline for our community of paying Ledger subscribers to give their favorite local charities some well-deserved attention is this Friday (Nov. 20). The short version: Send us 50 words or fewer, and we’ll print them in a special edition early next month. Details of how to submit the info are here.

If you’re not a paying subscriber, you’re welcome to join and then submit the information, too.

The submissions have been rolling in steadily since we announced the plan last week. We look forward to sharing some unheralded local charities with you, in hopes that they can increase the level of support from our community.

Get yours in today! —TM


In brief:

  • States embrace new dining bans: Michigan and Washington state announced new bans on indoor dining on Sunday, following similar moves last week by New Mexico, Oregon and Illinois. (Restaurant Business)

  • County Covid loans: Mecklenburg County unknowingly loaned more than $350,000 in Covid relief funds to 17 local small businesses that were behind in paying their taxes, according to an investigation by WCNC. After the station started asking questions, the county’s economic development director, Peter Zeiler, told county commissioners in an email that the county would start working to verify whether applicants have outstanding balances. (WCNC)

  • Neighbors oppose industrial development: Residents are fighting a proposed 1.5-million s.f. industrial development on 156 acres off Moores Chapel Road in west Charlotte. An online petition opposing a rezoning proposed by The Keith Corp. has more than 1,100 signatures. A City Council vote is expected tonight. (Queen City Nerve)

  • ‘A miss’ on CMS bus issue: Asked about the school district’s failure to determine how many students would need to ride buses this year, school board chair Elyse Dashew told The Observer’s editorial board: “I think in 2020 hindsight, that was probably a miss.” The board voted to delay reopening middle schools last week because of a bus driver shortage. It’s a change in tune from Tuesday’s board meeting, when several board members and top administrators heaped praise on transportation director Adam Johnson. At the meeting, Dashew thanked Johnson and his team for “the thankless thousands of hours of work that you have put in.” Deputy superintendent for operations Carol Stamper said: “Adam and team and everyone that is listening in the transportation department, kudos to you. Your dedication and your commitment to these students shows greatly.” (Observer)

  • No return to office in 2021: Tech company Red Ventures, which has nearly 1,500 workers in the Charlotte region, has told employees that they will not be required to return to the office at all in 2021. The company is headquartered in Indian Land, south of Ballantyne. (Agenda)

  • Airport-area Salsarita’s closes: Salsarita’s has permanently closed its Lake Pointe location near the Charlotte airport, at Tyvola and Yorkmont roads, according to an email sent to customers. It had been there for 12 years.

  • Selwyn Pub closure: Selwyn Pub in Myers Park says it is temporarily closing because “we deem it prudent to stay safe during the current surge and return to operations when conditions are more favorable,” according to a post on its Instagram account on Sunday. It had closed this month after an employee tested positive for Covid, a Nov. 5 post said. On Saturday, a local photographer named Peter Taylor posted photos on Twitter of a line outside Selwyn Pub and wrote, “How does Selwyn Pub get away with this? … When you are mad about the next lockdown … here’s one of the reasons.”

  • Former Wells CEO fined: Former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf agreed to pay a $2.5M fine in connection with his role in the bank’s fake-accounts scandal, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Friday. The SEC alleged that Stumpf and executive Carrie Tolstedt knew or should have known that statements about the success of the bank’s “cross-selling metric” were false or misleading. (Bloomberg)

  • Grocery openings: Discount grocer Aldi said it plans to open 2 new stores in the Charlotte area: one in Cornelius opening Thursday, and another in Indian Land opening next month. There are more than 30 Aldis in the Charlotte region. (Observer)

  • Health layoffs: Cardinal Health plans to close its facility in Indian Land, S.C., in spring 2021 and lay off about 300, the company said. (Biz Journal)


Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:


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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and website publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business-y news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Reporting intern: David Griffith