Child care shortage drives construction contractor to create his own solution

Supporters tour Panther Cubs Academy in Platte during a fundraiser weekend. (Courtesy photo)

(John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight) – Platte has been good to Tyler Samuelson and his family.

Over the past 15 years, the owner of Summit Contracting has seen his family’s business grow into the largest employer in the south-central South Dakota town.

Lately, Platte’s meager 1,300 population has become a problem for the growing business, which manufactures “anything on the farm for a farmer,” as Samuelson describes his company’s work.

“People were turning down job opportunities because they couldn’t find child care,” Samuelson said.

It’s the sort of scenario lawmakers and advocates discuss when they talk about a child care crisis in South Dakota, and it’s talk that’s appeared more frequently in the past few years.

The sign for Panther Cubs Academy in Platte, SD. (courtesy photo)
 The sign for Panther Cubs Academy in Platte. (Courtesy photo) 

The state received $100 million for child care from the federal American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, of which $62 million was awarded as stabilization grants to 600 providers across the state. The other $38 million is being used for grants to new and expanding child care centers, and for related initiatives to bolster the child care industry.

The Sioux Falls Child Care Collaborative recently released a road map for dealing with the issue that includes a list of steps private companies can take to help solve the problem.

Samuelson didn’t know a thing about road maps or child care talking points last fall. He only knew the problem had been a hiring roadblock for at least five years.

What he moved to do at that point, however – and quickly found support for doing across his community — was almost exactly what the collaborative’s report suggests that private companies ought to: partner with child care professionals to start a day care center.

At first, the idea was a center for Summit employees alone.

That plan changed early on in the information-gathering phase of the project. Platte has at least 175 kids of day care age, just one child care center with a capacity of 42, and a handful of in-home day cares.

“We quickly realized that the need was a heck of a lot bigger than just Summit,” he said.

Seating a board, hiring a boss

Samuelson didn’t know much about child care, but he knew someone who did: Rachel Lampy.

Lampy has a degree in early childhood education and more than a decade of experience in the business, mostly in Pierre, a city up the Missouri River from Platte.

Lampy had long wanted to start her own nonprofit child care center, but it wasn’t in the cards for her in the capital city.

“There’s a building in Pierre that I always thought should be a day care,” Lampy said. “I looked at how I would renovate it, what I would do, but I never had any type of funding to be able to do it. I never had that community support, which you need to be successful.”

She’d find that support in Platte. Samuelson had the capital and the team to build, and other businesses and community leaders were on board. He knew it ought to be a nonprofit, and Lampy helped guide Samuelson through the process of founding one.

“I told him, ‘If you’re going to do a nonprofit, you need a board, and then you need to hire me — like do an interview, do everything you guys need to do, because I might not be your right person,” Lampy said.

The nonprofit Platte Community Development Corporation, meanwhile, pitched in as a way station for donations as Samuelson built a board of directors and filed organizational paperwork.

A group gathered at a fundraising dinner for Panther Cubs Academy, a nonprofit day care in Platte. (Submitted photo)

“We took their donations until they got their 501(c)(3) status,” said Colette Mesman, the development corporation’s director. “We didn’t have the money to back them, but we worked to back them in any way we could.”

That support was one reason the center, dubbed Panther Cubs Academy (the local school’s mascot is the Black Panther), went from idea to open doors in less than a year.

Local contractors were hired for the plumbing, windows and door frames, and local businesses later donated items to a fundraising raffle.

The other day care center in town, also a nonprofit, was a helpful collaborator and threw its support behind the project, largely as a way to ease its own burden in a town with more young kids than both centers could handle, even combined.

“We didn’t pull any kids from the existing nonprofit day care in town, nor did we pull any employees,” said Samuelson.

By mid-August, Panther Cubs Academy was complete. There are currently six employees, counting Lampy, who care for about 50 children, and the center has space to expand.

“It’s been a whirlwind, honestly,” she said. “I thought it was never going to happen.”

Concert rallies community

The support has been meaningful and helpful, but it hasn’t met every financial need.

Samuelson didn’t donate the building and the work it took to put it up. Instead, he said, the company did the job at cost and diverted employees from their typical on-farm work to build the center.

“The time we spent doing it, we could have been using those crews and those individuals on projects that would generate profit,” Samuelson said. “So we gave up profit in order to do the project. So I mean, that’s a number, it’s hard to put a value on, but it’s a lot.”

Samuelson and his wife have also donated to the nonprofit, he said, but there’s still a funding gap.

In hopes of covering some of the $1.2 million cost of the project, the academy hired a Sioux Falls company to plan a fundraiser. Organizers went all-in on the kind of event rarely associated with child care: a formal dinner and concert.

The proceeds from ticket sales for the recent show with the Nashville band Hudson Valley went to support the center, as did proceeds from a three-course dinner served that evening. Those who didn’t want to spend their evening with the country band were encouraged to bid during live and silent auctions, or to simply donate online.

The auction items, the food and drinks, even the stage for the band, came in as donations to the center, Lampy said, all in hopes of finding firm financial footing to break even in daily operations.

The band Hudson Valley performs at a fundraiser for a nonprofit day care in Platte, SD. (courtesy photo)
The band Hudson Valley performs at a fundraiser for a nonprofit day care in Platte. (Courtesy photo)

“That’s our goal,” Lampy said. “We want to be sustainable.”

Just under 300 people attended the show. Mesman, director of the Platte Development Corporation, said her organization helped rally local businesses for support.

Those Main Street businesses “get hit up for everything” when local fundraising needs emerge, Mesman said, but support for the center was an easy sell. Those business owners were as happy to see Samuelson and Lampy pick up the cause of child care as anyone else in town, she said.

“Both of them kind of went out on a limb, so we’re blessed to have them in our community,” Mesman said.

Final fundraising figures are still being tallied, according to the event’s organizers, but Samuelson said he’s already been impressed by the number of people who’ve pulled out a checkbook. Summit is doing well enough that it was able to “hold the elephant in its mouth” and absorb the building costs up front, Samuelson said, but the donations collected before the event signal the community’s intention to pull its share of the weight.

The project did get a boost from one of the child care grants offered by the state, but the $362,000 sent to the center through that program can only be used for health and safety items, appliances and upgrades. The money can’t be used for construction.

The donations collected at the event will help cover the cost of the building. Donations beyond that in the coming years will help fund the operations.

“It’s our hope that after this weekend’s event, we will have covered half the project cost,” Samuelson said. “That’s exceeded our expectations.”