Daycare in former Cold Springs School melds private-public entities

At its new location in the former Cold Springs School, the Missoula Early Learning Center will be able to accommodate 164 children. (Courtesy photo)

As the Missoula Early Learning Center’s organizers finalize their budget for a planned relocation to the former Cold Springs Elementary School, the private entity continues to work closely with Missoula County Public Schools on an unusual partnership.

“We’re finishing up our due diligence period with the contractors, a hazardous materials assessment report, binging in contractors to bring the building up to code and finalizing the budget,” said Mark Roberts, majority owner and business manager at the Missoula Early Learning Center, 2120 Ernest Ave. – on the north side of Brooks Street.

In late 2020, when the new daycare and preschool relocates to the south side of Brooks, the center will encompass 33,400 square feet – or 65 percent – of the 51,000 total square feet of space at Cold Springs Elementary, 2625 Briggs St. The new space will hold about 164 children. 

The lease breaks down to $99,000 per year at about $3 per square foot, said Pat McHugh, MCPS business and operations director.

Roberts expects to employ about 55 people in the new location.

“From Mark’s standpoint they’re meeting a need in the community,” McHugh said. “From our standpoint, the building will be used, improved and occupied. That’s good. We had some positive feedback from neighbors in our meeting who were happy it’s being used.”

Roberts and the center have already signed a 20-month rental lease agreement with the school district for $8,350 per month.

“The rent kicks in after the due diligence period of 60 days,” said McHugh. “It’s an opportunity for them to further examine the property and presumably begin improvements.” 

Licensing, permits and asbestos testing are also part of the improvement plant. 

McHugh added that the district will update the current lease following changes. 

“The board approved the lease, knowing there would be a modification to the footage,” said McHugh. 

Meanwhile, for the next year, renovation will continue.

The district closed Cold Springs School in December, 2018. The six-and-one-half acres of green space and buildings have sat unoccupied since then, inviting some vandalism that needs repair and graffiti that needs whitewashing.

“Right now, we’re in the final stages of putting together our sketches, budget and timeline for renovation because that has to be approved by the school board, per our contract with them,” said Roberts.

He hopes the school board can approve renovation changes by mid-December or at least in January sometime. 

“It’s just them approving one thing or another,” said Roberts. “We’ll use the same subcontractors the school district uses anyway.”

Included on the standard “due diligence” list: checking fire alarms and safety locks. 

“As the lessor of the space,” said McHugh, “We will approve the improvements and make sure the property is maintained, according to school standards.”

By December, Roberts said he plans to lock down a confirmed tally of the total number of children the new daycare can hold at capacity and better understand how it will affect growth in the community. 

By then, he said he also hopes to secure more partnerships in the endeavor.

“We’re kind of in uncharted territory with private-public partnerships as far as the space is concerned,” added Roberts. “We’ll be a private entity working with a public entity.”

The new facility will open in late 2020. (Courtesy photo)

Reopening the southwest corner of the Cold Springs Elementary building for a new purpose appears to be a win-win situation for the private center and the public MCPS. 

The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, already a partner in the project, has worked with the center the past year.

“We work with MCPS to create childcare,” said Chamber CEO Kim Latrielle.  We’ve been working on that quite a bit in the year and half – and we’re pretty excited to behind Walmart.”

Asked if Walmart, which regularly houses RVs and often attracts a transient demographic, could have a negative effect on a daycare so close to the south, Latrielle said organizers ensure it will be a safe area for parents to drop off their kids. 

The Chamber relies on a 2018 survey that shed a light on much-needed access to quality, affordable childcare in the Missoula area, a federal reserve childcare initiative to gather information about local demand for childcare – plus several daycare models – to partner with other Missoula businesses, such as Submittable and MyVillage. 

Clint Burson, government affairs director at the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber has identified seven daycare models:

  • Business hosting childcare in-house (the Patagonia model)
  • Multiple businesses forming a co-op to provide childcare for their employees
  • One large center capable of providing childcare for 250+ children
  • Childcare center located in vacant public school building
  • Childcare center located in a shopping mall — drives traffic to the mall – with an exterior entrance only
  • Childcare facility included in new developments — such as the Sawmill District, where the development includes mixed use, residential/commercial spaces
  • In-home childcare opportunities/partnership with MyVillage

The new Missoula Early Learning Center fits the fourth model.

The district closed Cold Springs Elementary in December 2018, when students moved to the new Jeannette Rankin Elementary School, 5150 Bigfork Road.