‘It’s a dire situation for Mountain Tots’
Eagle preschool that’s been in business for 46 years is desperately searching for a new home
When Megan Wilson’s son Benny was just six days old, she placed his name on the waiting list at Mountain Tots Preschool in Eagle.
For nearly 50 years, many downvalley parents reserved spots at the preschool when their children were just infants. Ever since it opened back in 1974, Mountain Tots has been a community institution. For 46 years, the school has operated at its Wall Street location and today there are children enrolled whose parents attended the school.
Wilson is the current president of the Mountain Tots board of directors and an enthusiastic advocate for its programs and staff. Wilson is also afraid the venerated preschool’s days are numbered.
“We have been in this same spot since 1974 and our lease is up in May and our landlord wants to increase our rent,” she explained.
Currently, 35 local families have children enrolled at Mountain Tots. Pre-COVID-19, there were roughly 50 preschool families. The school can serve up to 30 children per day.
Wilson said the Mountain Tots building landlord has offered a series of step increases over a four-year period to get to the rent amount he wants, but she noted the plan is just a step to the inevitable.
“If we can’t get another space, in two years we can’t keep the school open,” she said.
This is just the most recent obstacle for the preschool, which wants to continue serving downvalley families and find a permanent home of its own. That’s just more easily said than done, Wilson noted.
Anything for sale?
“Our five year plan is to purchase a building,” Wilson explained. “We have been saving and fundraising and writing grants for everything out there. But now our lease is up and we still don’t have a building.”
She hopes publicizing the preschool’s dilemma sparks a solution.
“Maybe there is someone out there who has a building they are interested in selling,” Wilson said.
But a preschool can’t plop down just anywhere. There are a number of building requirements, including 30 square foot of indoor space and 75 square feet of outdoor space per child. Wilson knows that looking for a suitable space may be a unicorn hunt, especially in a real estate market where properties often are snatched up before they are even advertised.
“It is a very dire situation for Mountain Tots,” said Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney, an outspoken advocate for early childhood services.
Unfortunately, she noted, it is not a unique one. The Family Learning Center in Edwards and the Children’s Garden in Vail are also on the hunt for new locations, McQueeney noted.
“Not every space is a good child care space,” she said. “It takes years to find the right building.”
As preschool programs such as Mountain Tots try to find suitable locations, the need for programs and the economic challenges associated with child care facilities continue to grow.
Half as much
“We have done study after study that shows the need for child care in Eagle County,” McQueeney continued. “We have about half as much care as we need.”
The need for affordable child care is one of the county’s big issues — right up there with workforce housing, transportation and health care.
“This is our working families that we are trying to support. Our workers need places to live and places for their children to be cared for,” McQueeney said.
Local employers have recognized the issue, she continued. One of the effects of COVID-19 is child care capacity has been reduced when there wasn’t enough available to begin with, McQueeney said.
“People want to go back to work and they don’t have child care space,” said McQueeney. “It is definitely impacting our economic recovery. Our businesses are really seeing the effect of child care.”
“I honestly have no idea what people would do if we closed down,” Wilson said. “I don’t know where people would go. I known I would never be able to just quit my job.”
Cost is a further complication, McQueeney said.
“Parents can’t really pay any more than what they are paying now in tuition. They are already playing a lot,” she noted.
It all comes down to a grim scenario — a vitally important community need is being priced out of the local real estate market because of its special requirements and limited ability to increase revenues. McQueeney believes collaboration presents one of the few avenues available to address the problem.
Wilson said the Mountain Tots board is going public with its problem to see what the broader community can do.
“Everyone says they want to help, but just aren’t sure what that looks like,” Wilson said.
“It’s important to keep the communication going. It’s important to continue the networking,” McQueeney said. “You don’t know who will have a solution. We need to keep taking about it.”
Once a child care facility does find a suitable space, there are county and state programs available to help an operation, McQueeney noted.
“We are willing to help in any way we can, but we can’t build a building for them, so we are sort of in a holding pattern,” McQueeney said. “There are options and ways we can help if they have a specific request. But the right buildings are few and far between.”
What the county can and does do, she said, is continue to study and discuss child care needs and solutions. For instance, McQueeney noted the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments recently completed a comprehensive regional study that examines the issue.
Wilson noted her son will move on to kindergarten next year so her family won’t be directly impacted if Mountain Tots is forced to close. But it hurts her heart to think of that possibility.
“I feel very passionate about this school,” she said. “This school does a fantastic job meeting social and educational needs and preparing kids for kindergarten.”
That’s the kind of passion that Eagle County’s early childhood education efforts needs, McQueeney said.
“It makes a difference for who you are as a community if you don’t have a place for children,” she said.