Hormel seeking tax abatement for child care center

Published 6:16 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2023

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The Mower County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a 15-year tax abatement for a privately run child care center in Austin that will be operated by Hormel Food Corps.

At the same time, the Austin Public Schools Board has scheduled a public hearing, scheduled for March 13, regarding the same project that when completed would offer 130 child care slots and be built on a piece of land currently owned by Hormel to the west of Worlein Funeral Homes and north of the Holiday Inn Conference Center.

The building is planned to be 13,347 square feet according to Jeff Holt, senior manager of corporate properties for Hormel.

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During Tuesday morning’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Holt said the company hoped to break ground in either late April or early May. Plans call for a projected opening in 2024. The value of the land is assessed at $332,400 with Hormel estimating another $5 million in improvements to the site.

According to Holt the desire to build the center comes directly from the need for child care in Mower County. According to numbers he shared during both meetings from a survey by First Children’s Finance, Austin is currently short 531 slots and Mower County is short 809 slots, though it should be noted this doesn’t mean there are that many children needing child care currently.

He also noted that such a drastic need for child care can have a direct effect on employment both at Hormel and other businesses in Austin explaining that potential employees may go elsewhere if there is not a solid child care base.

“It’s becoming a need to attract and retain employees in our community,” Holt said, adding that there is also an economic betterment aspect as well. “We see this as an economic development lever we can pull.”

Once built, the center would hire around 23 full time instruction staff and Hormel would partner with Bright Horizons to run the center. Of the 130 slots, 100 would be designated as infant and pre-kindergarten slots.

Holt explained that the center is inspected to be at 85% enrollment on average each year and would likely run at a deficit, further explaining that to attempt to break even would forecast higher costs.

“If we price this at a rate to break even, it would be similar to ones in the metro,” Holt said. “It’s not sustainable”

Before voting Tuesday, Commissioner Jerry Reinartz voiced his support for the project saying, “This is definitely a worthwhile project we’re all in favor of.”

At the same time, City Administrator Trish Harren sought to relieve fears of those who run home-based child care centers after hearing concerns that this could put a burden on them, saying that the county was still dedicated to all child care providers.

“We want to assure all of our child care providers that we support the growth of seats in Mower County,” Harren said. “We’re very invested in increasing the number of seats.”

Once constructed, Hormel employees would get first preference in slots at the center, however, with predictions that the center would never be at full capacity, it’s likely that there will be seats for the public as well. However, it is unclear at this point just how many slots that would include and how many would be open to the general public after that.

The Austin City Council will also be hearing about the project in the near future.

In other news

• Austin High School students Blake Zimmerli and Emma Stanley performed an original piece of music, written last year by Zimmerli, at the School Board meeting. The duo recently earned Best in Site at the Solo/Ensemble Competition on Feb. 4.

• At the county board meeting, commissioners approved support for pursuing an Arvig Border to Border Grant that would go toward a project to substantially expand broadband access across the county. Cost of the entire project is estimated at over $6.8 million with Arvig funding 40% of the project at $2.7 million and the grant covering 50% of the cost at $3.4 million. The county would then pay the remaining 10% coming to $686,938.88.