Betty Smith, owner of the Play Center Nursery School & Kindergarten on Revere Street in Kingsport, plays with children at the center last week. David Grace photo.
KINGSPORT — Little Lamb Child Development Center will close its doors this month after nearly 21 years in operation.
Crossroads Academy day care center shut down last week.
And Play Center Nursery School & Kindergarten in downtown Kingsport is fighting for its survival after serving children and their families since the 1940s.
Some day care centers across the region are experiencing financial hardships.
Crossroads Academy held its last day on Wednesday. The director said the problems were financial — mainly due to a lack of full-time students. The center served 54 children, and many were enrolled only part-time.
The problems differ at other day care centers.
At Play Center Nursery School & Kindergarten on Revere Street, owner Betty Smith has been struggling in recent months just to keep the child care center out of foreclosure. The mortgage holder has been threatening to auction off the property, even though Smith recently secured a funding commitment from Southeast Community Capital to keep the center in operation.
As of Friday afternoon, Play Center was scheduled to be sold at auction Monday in Blountville. But Smith, who joined the center in the 1970s and eventually became the sole owner in 1987, still held out hope for her business. Her attorney has filed an emergency injunction with the court, hoping to stop the foreclosure proceedings. The Times-News plans to follow up with the Play Center story early next week.
Meanwhile Little Lamb, a child care facility inside Kingsport Community Church on Memorial Boulevard, plans to close its doors Feb. 18.
Ron Lowe, pastor at Kingsport Community Church, said the center’s main challenge stems from state building code regulations, which were tightened after some people died in nursing home fires a couple of years ago.
“The fire codes got more stringent, and they needed to be. But I think some of the rules got a little bit too stringent,” Lowe said.
The stricter codes required Little Lamb to replace some windows two years ago at a cost of $4,000. Last year, the center was required to replace eight doors, costing $18,000.
“At one point, they were trying to force us to put in a $30,000 sprinkler system,” Lowe said. “When you’re doing this as a ministry and you’re just trying to break even, you can’t keep incurring those kinds of costs.”
He said nursing homes across the state were given access to grants to help them meet the new fire code standards, but day care centers don’t have the same support.
“We could have stayed open had we been able to receive some kind of grants like they did, but we didn’t,” Lowe said.
He said the tight labor market has also been a factor, making it difficult to get and keep good child care workers.
“And we started having problems collecting from some parents. There were some to leave us owing hundreds of dollars. So there was a multiplicity of factors,” Lowe said.
Little Lamb has served about 50 children each year for the past 21 years.
Lowe said the day care center has tried to help parents find alternative solutions.
“Our parents for the most part were very gracious and knew we had done everything we could do. But our hands were just forced on it,” Lowe said.
“We did whatever we could,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. Without exception, not an elder on our board of elders, not a board member on our day care board — everyone of us worked diligently to try to keep it open. We don’t want to lose it. We don’t want to close.”
Other day care centers in the city are still accepting children, and some facilities are making room for more.
Karen Baker, director of the child care facility at First Broad Street United Methodist Church, said her facility currently serves 75 children, but plans to add space for another 6 to 10 beginning Jan. 22.
“We’re actually taking over some space that another ministry uses. They’ve been willing to give up that space so that we can have an additional classroom to ease the burden of those who are still looking for child care,” Baker said.
First Broad Street UMC has operated its child care ministry for 64 years. Baker said the center has upgraded its facilities to meet the stricter fire codes, but nothing major was required, since the building was already equipped with a sprinkler system and fire detectors.
As for the tight labor market, Baker said she hasn’t had difficulty finding employees because the facility offers benefits — which is atypical in the child care field.
“So we get folks and they typically stay around for a good long time, because that’s just not a common practice in this field,” she said.
She said First Broad Street’s child care center is supported and underwritten by the church’s congregation. “We’ve been very blessed. Our church has been in full support of this ministry. Without its underwriting, we couldn’t exist,” she said.
Alex Vukosavljevic, director at Waverly Road Presbyterian Church Child Care Center, said her facility is now filled to capacity because of closings at other day care centers. Waverly Road now serves 45 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. Vukosavljevic said the center now has a waiting list of names of children wanting to enroll at the facility.
As for stricter building codes, Vukosavljevic said Waverly Road has already undergone renovations to meet all standards.
Parents looking for child care can check for openings at various facilities in town. Some centers offer full-time care, while others serve as part-time preschools.
For instance, Mountain View United Methodist Church on Orebank Road offers a part-time day school for children ages 2 through 5. In addition, the church just this year began offering a “Mother’s Day Out” for infants to two years old. Parents can bring their infants to the church from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays.