The United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Area is launching the Bright Futures campaign to raise between $2 million and $2.5 million to buy or build a facility to house its offices and a new childcare center.

The campaign will pave the way for the Bright Futures Childcare Center, which would be part of United Way’s Bright Futures Family Success Center, and mark the organization’s first foray into on-site childcare. It's a pressing need in the community, United Way leaders say.

“We’ve been talking with community members and social workers on how to make the biggest impact in our community,” said Dave Sena, chief executive director. “We are committed to the project and the campaign.”

United Way currently rents office space at 24th Avenue South and 14th Street, a location it has outgrown and plans to vacate when the lease expires next May, Sena said.

“We are looking for property with more than 30,000 square feet,” Sena said.

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The larger space is needed for the proposed childcare center that could accommodate up to 135 children, ages birth to 12. United Way leaders also want the new location to include a large auditorium or gym for indoor play.

These spatial needs have prompted them to consider Wilder Elementary School as a possible option, if it became available. That would depend on the outcome of the June 22 school referendum, which could result in closure and consolidation of Wilder and Winship Elementary into a proposed K-8 campus where Valley Middle School now stands.

Childcare is one of the most pressing needs in the community, Sena said. At present, childcare facilities in Grand Forks are meeting only 40% of the need, he said.

According to Child Care Aware of North Dakota, a nonprofit organization, there are more than 11,000 children, ages birth to 12, who need child care here, said Heather Novak, chief operations officer for United Way.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted for United Way leaders that “we need to provide direct services to our community,” Novak said.

United Way leaders also want to find more space to accommodate its family resource center; a community resource center; the East Grand Forks Backpack Program; Kidz Closet; and offices for staff and licensed social workers who provide case management services with the Families First Program.

Currently, the organization partners with a Grand Forks motel to provide housing for homeless families, Novak said.

The Backpack Program and Kidz Closet, in particular, are “meeting the urgent needs of families” in this community and, through the Families First Program, social workers help find shelter and other support for families who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of losing their homes, she said.

The childcare center would be open to the public, “but we’ll keep track of household income,” Novak said. It would provide United Way with another source of income, with tuition estimated at $1,024,000. It would be offset by expenses of about $1 million, according to campaign materials.

Through the Bright Future Campaign, the United Way leaders hope to raise up to $2.5 million over the next 30 months, Sena said. A portion of the funds raised would be used to provide scholarships for childcare for families in need.

They hope to acquire and renovate the property in the next 18 to 24 months, Sena said.

The organization would like to find a location north of DeMers Avenue, because a facility in that area would be easily accessible for families who would benefit and fill an important need, they say.

On the city’s north side, Altru Family YMCA may be the only childcare center, Novak said. “And there could be home-based childcare facilities (in that area), but they are not centers.”

For the past six months or so, United Way leaders have been looking at six to 10 possible buildings – either in person or online – that could accommodate their needs. They have also had “informal conversations” with leaders at Wesley United Methodist Church, Sena said.

They have been considering other properties too – such as hotels, warehouses and other large spaces – as possible relocation sites, he said. “There are five or six that could be utilized, but we’d have to see when they’d become available and the cost of renovation.”

“We’ve been doing a lot of research, but whether to build or buy has been decided yet,” Novak said.

This is not an opportune time to build, because it is “very expensive,” Sena said.

United Way employs 7.5 full-time equivalent staff members and operates with a nearly $1 million budget, he said.

In preparation for the launch of the Bright Futures Campaign, United Way conducted community meetings and held forums with people who would receive the services, Novak said.

The campaign, formally announced at a community breakfast last month, is the most recent initiative that reflects United Way’s effort to carry out its three-pronged mission, focused on the pillars that Sena describes as “live, work and learn.”

“Live” relates to the primary necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter, medicine and behavioral health, he said. “‘Work’ is about helping parents get employment, and ‘learn’ is addressing kids’ education.”

The outcome of the Tuesday, June 22, school referendum election may affect how the United Way board moves forward on this initiative.

“We are waiting to see what happens with the schools and what process the School Board will use if schools are available to be purchased,” Sena said. “However we are actively reviewing other sites that might fit our needs as well.”

He emphasized that United Way is in the early stages of considering properties for potential relocation.

“In six or seven months we’ll have a better understanding” of the direction the organization will take, Sena said.