Leas: Childcare center to boost ed

Riverland's Early Childhood Education Center will have its own entrance and parking spaces. Riverland officials say about 3,000 square feet of parking space will be built for the ECEC. -- Art provided

Riverland Community College will reconfigure one of its buildings on the West campus into a new Early Childhood Education Center worth more than $3 million, Riverland officials announced Monday.

Riverland President Terry Leas announces official plans Monday night for an early childhood education center to go into Riverland next year. -- Matt Peterson/matt.peterson@austindailyherald.com

The college will convert 17,000 square feet of its West Building to house the childhood center, which will serve about 200 full-time and 200 part-time children ages 5 and younger.

“It’s going to help children get more out of K-12, but it’s also going to have them more likely to be college ready and be successful,” said Riverland President Terry Leas.

An additional 3,000 square feet that includes landscaping and parking improvements will also be part of the project. The Hormel Foundation helped secure the more than $3 million in funding so far, according to Riverland officials.

“It says we believe in the future of the children,” said Gary Ray, Hormel Foundation chairman.

The project is one of the top 10 community needs, according to recent United Way surveys.

Riverland officials say the ECEC benefits Riverland’s student and employee parents with young children, and also offers learning opportunities for students enrolled in Riverland’s Human Services, Nursing, and Law Enforcement program.

Riverland's Early Childhood Education Center will have its own entrance and parking spaces. Riverland officials say about 3,000 square feet of parking space will be built for the ECEC. -- Art provided

Riverland hopes to put together a two-plus-two program for early childhood education students looking to get two years’ classes at Riverland and finish their undergraduate at one of Riverland’s sister universities under the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Students would be able to get hands-on experience with preschoolers at the ECEC, according to Leas.

Riverland is already preparing the building, which houses Agricultural Design equipment, for renovation.

Although the complete funding list is not finalized, The Hormel Foundation has donated $2 million and the Hormel Foods Corp. Charitable Trust has pledged $1 million to the Center.

Hormel Foods CEO Jeff Ettinger said engagement surveys within the company have even showed the want and need for a new child care center. Through the surveys, Hormel employees have asked for better child care facilities on a repeated basis.

“What’s lacking — really right at the top of each of the survey’s — has been the potential for child care facilities in the area,” Ettinger said.

Ettinger said the child care facility has been a realistic vision for a little more than a year. He and others agreed that the child care facility will not only benefit working parents, but the entire community. Along with offering its own jobs, the facility could draw more residents to the community because of its benefits.

“It takes a real vision to see what this is going to look like down the road,” Ettinger said while looking around the current building. However, he said he’s confident it is going to be an excellent facility.

As a member of the Minnesota’s P-20 council — a group of educators, legislators and other representatives — Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said this facility will help close Austin’s achievement gap.

“Early childhood education kids have to be better prepared to start school,” Poppe said. “That’s significant these days. It’s been a need for many years.”

Though Poppe said Austin already has some good child care facilities, this will be a more encompassing one.

— Matt Peterson contributed to this report.

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