Yadkin County September 2023


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

“What are the things that keep economic developers awake at night? Any issue that disrupts the labor force.”

That’s how Bobby Todd, executive director of Yadkin County Chamber of Commerce, kicked off our visit to Yadkin County. The Extra Miles Tour had gathered for conversation and breakfast with local leaders at The Front Yard, part of the Yadkin Arts Council complex in Yadkinville. As soon as everyone had grabbed their coffee and biscuits, the conversation settled on one of those anxiety-inducing scenarios that’s become a reality in many communities across the state: The county’s lack of affordable, high-quality childcare options has become a significant barrier to employment opportunities, making it a challenge for local industries to fill positions and area schools to find teachers.

Carolyn Choplin explained how, when she arrived at the county’s Smart Start organization 12 years ago, the county had a total of 20 licensed childcare facilities. Today there are only six, and there’s a two-year waiting list to get into one of those. What are some of the forces driving these businesses away? Childcare providers can’t afford to pay competitive wages to recruit staff. Real estate, rental and maintenance costs are rising, eating into profitability. Regulations, which are so important to keep children safe, are also complex.

When county, school and business leaders began conferring on how to tackle the situation, they realized that the many complex layers to the childcare dilemma boiled down to a core challenge: What could be done to help providers increase operational efficiency so they could pay competitive salaries, maintain their facilities and remain profitable?

Framing the problem this way helped the county devise an innovative solution: What if the community could build and maintain a single complex large enough to house several small childcare businesses?

That’s the concept behind the Shallow Ford Foundation’s FlexPlex plan, explained foundation president and CEO Sandi Scannelli. When FlexPlex is completed, it will offer turnkey space for six childcare businesses, which will each have access to gym facilities, a playground, office space that can be used for special services sessions (e.g., speech therapy) and all the other essential amenities. Smart Start will manage the property, offer back-office support, recruit businesses to fill the space and even provide a talent pool to step in when a staff member gets sick or can’t get to work for other reasons.

“All it will take for a business to succeed in this arrangement is rent money and the skillset and passion for the work of serving children,” Sandi explained. “The solution is ideal for smaller communities because it will attract smaller businesses, which won’t have to worry about a huge overhead.”

Furthermore, by creating a space for six different businesses to operate, FlexPlex will create more “bespoke” childcare options: The county hopes that at least one will focus on serving children with special needs, another will serve children of parents working second shift, and so on.

This shared services model is truly innovative … the first of its kind in the state, and perhaps in the nation.

H. Smith “Smitty” Williams, human resource manager at Unifi, explained the urgency of the project from the business perspective. His company just invested $35 million to update its machinery, and it is still 66 people short of full capacity, and women have become noticeably absent from his workforce.

Before the pandemic, 52% of the company’s employees were women. Today, only 45% are. Better access to childcare options will mean that fewer mothers, fathers and caregivers will have to choose between a career and parenting.

The childcare won’t be free. It will be cheaper … but it will still be expensive. That’s why many area industries are already planning to help their employees cover the cost, explained Kevin Austin, vice president of Austin Electrical Enclosures.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation President John Lumpkin added that there is plenty of data linking quality childcare to long-term academic success and well-being, and yet this essential service is well out of reach to many in the workforce.

“Building the workforce … improving health and quality of life for children and their families … promoting academic achievement … there needs to be public collaboration to solve the problem,” he said. “This project gives us a glimpse of what the future could be.”

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U39702, 10/23