After 50 years, a subsidized daycare center on the edge of Cotton Palace Park is looking to expand, but city plans to redevelop the park into a bustling hub for locals and tourists make the Waco Child Development Center’s path uncertain.
The center can accommodate up to 110 children at its current location on city-owned land at 1301 Ross Ave., bordering Cotton Palace Park. The centre’s board of directors and management have been discussing an expansion of their facilities for several years. But since the city announced plans for an $8.2 million redevelopment of Cotton Palace Park and held a meeting seeking public input last fall, discussions at the child development center have escalated. are geared towards the possibility of relocation rather than expansion.
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The city has engaged Walker Partners, a consulting firm, to produce a master plan for the park which will be completed in six months. Members of the daycare board met with Parks and Recreation Director Jonathan Cook and Planning Director Clint Peters and representatives from Walker Partners, said Debbie Miller, executive director of the Waco Child Development Center.
“We might not go into the park because they were talking about a dog park and bringing people in from the freeway,” Miller said. “We don’t want to wait until the last minute and not know.”
Cook said the discussion with the center was in its “early stages” and he was awaiting Walker Partners’ master plan, which will be completed in about six months.
“Over the next few weeks there will be discussions with (Waco City Council) and we will speak to the public,” Cook said.
At one point, city officials asked if the daycare would consider moving to East Waco, which Miller says is a possibility. The planned mixed-use development on the former site of Floyd Casey Stadium has also emerged as a potential new location, but only in passing.
“I would love to stay here if we could, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay here,” Miller said.
The Waco Child Development Center also provides infant care at a second facility on Ninth Street. Miller said the center is licensed to care for up to 45 infants, but the practical limit is closer to 20 because the infant care center is understaffed. If childcare and infant care were brought together under one roof, current staff might be able to do more, she said.
Miller said center leaders have aspired to expand the facility for several years, but unmet child care needs in the city of Waco have increased during the pandemic.
“It’s awful now. People don’t want to work,” she said.
She said she gets 20 to 30 calls a day from parents asking if the center has any openings, and on a recent Zoom call about the Texas Workforce Commission’s child care program, officials were discussing the expansion of infant care throughout the state.
Miller began working at the center in 1985, when it was still a service of the city of Waco. In 1988, the city ceded control to an independent board of directors.
“We had no money when I took over, and now we have money to build,” she said. “My goal is to build a nice center for children and families, with money in the bank so it can continue to operate while I’m gone.”
Miller said the center was once surrounded by several child care centers run by nonprofits and churches, but these began closing in the 1990s. Nearby, on Webster Avenue, Evangelia Settlement offered services child care service to low-income Waco families for 100 years before closing in 2007.
Today, Talitha Koum is still nearby, having expanded her reach from children living at Kate Ross Homes to all over Waco. The others bent or moved.
Miller said the path forward is still unclear for the Waco Child Development Center, but she estimates it will need 10,000 square feet of space.
According to state laws, subsidized child care centers must have a minimum of 30 square feet of space for each child, which means that a center for 200 children should be 6,000 square feet, not including space for kitchens, bathrooms and other utility rooms.
“I’m open to anything in the area where we can help people,” Miller said. “Of course I like this area because I like big trees and we have a big playground.”
She said that in the fall, school-age classes of about 35 children collected pecans around the center, sold them, and then voted as a group on what to do with the money. Sometimes it pays for a pizza night, other times the kids vote to split it equally among themselves and take it home.
Mack Hardin, who sits on the center’s board, said he would rather a new facility be built on center-owned land, rather than expand on city-owned land. He said that with Cotton Palace Park’s situation, that means getting a bigger facility is taking longer than he would like.
“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary this year, and as I told our board, we have to make the best decision for 50 years,” Hardin said.
He said he was awaiting the results of the study from Walker Partners, as well as city staff, to see if they concluded the center fit within Cotton Palace Park’s redevelopment plans.
“One of the things we have to consider…is if we have to borrow money to do construction, a bank won’t lend you money for a building on land that you don’t own,” he said. Hardin said.
He said he was also concerned that the center was buying too little land and could expand in the future.