For many communities, local investments in infrastructure tend to address familiar issues—housing, transportation, power and telecommunications systems, event centers and so on. But Fremont leaders are thinking more broadly, and maybe a little less conventionally, when it comes to economic development. About a year ago, the Fremont City Council approved a $71,121 Local Option Economic Development Loan to enable an area entrepreneur to launch a business that will help address the workforce needs of a much wider circle of employers in the community. The business? Pearl Academy, an early childhood education and care center.
Not long after moving to Fremont seven years ago, Myra Katherine Hale began to recognize a growing need for high-quality, affordable child care to serve Fremont’s working parents. Hale’s background as a professional early childhood educator and small business owner attuned her to the fact that the community not only needed to offer quality child care to families of different incomes, but it should also be flexible enough to align with different work schedules offered by local employers in health care, agricultural manufacturing, meat processing and other industries.
Widened scope of LB840 funds
Hale’s pursuit of the loan for Pearl Academy widened the conversation about how Local Option Economic Development funds could be used. These funds, made available by LB840 (1991), enable municipalities to collect and invest local tax dollars based on their community’s economic development plan. Fremont’s plan typically allows for loans to businesses engaged in research and development, manufacturing, telecommunications, tourism and other activities.
Following Hale's presentation on the benefits of a quality child care center that could be realized through LB840 funds, the Fremont City Council’s voted 7-0 to approve the loan to Pearl Academy, half of which will be forgivable after the center has been in operation for five years.
The Pearl Academy proposal also resonated strongly with Garry Clark, Executive Director of the Greater Fremont Development Council. Clark, who spoke in support of Hale’s application during the City Council meeting, believes businesses like Pearl Academy will better position Fremont to support necessary growth in the area’s population and workforce.
“We are in a county that projects an increase in workforce needs of over 1,200 workers in the next year,” said Clark. “This does not include existing openings in Fremont and Dodge County. Couple this with the projected population increase of 2,000 people in Fremont in the next three to four years…. child care and early childhood education opportunities will help sustain the critical mass that is the lifeline of a growing region and community,” he said.
Quality care impacts workforce retention, attendance
For City Council member Susan Jacobus, the issue hinges not only on the quantity of available child care options, but their professionalism as well. Reflecting on her own experience, Jacobus said having to rely on sporadic, unreliable child care services can greatly complicate the ability of parents—especially single parents—to meet their work obligations while ensuring appropriate care for their children.
Availability of quality child care affects workforce attraction, retention, attendance and productivity. But, according to Hale, it also influences people’s behavior when it comes to growing the local economy. “There’s a large demand for quality child care. A lot of Fremont residents who commute to Omaha for work end up relying on providers in that city rather than in their own community,” said Hale. “This is a way to encourage people to invest in local business and in Fremont.”