This story begins three years ago when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) sponsored a two-day conference for business leaders in his district to educate them about the various aspects of child care, ranging from tax breaks they could get for on-site day care to the impact of child care problems on the stability of the work force.
Since then, Wolf and his office have been instrumental in getting businesses involved in opening a child care center in Crystal City and in getting three other centers off the ground.
The next center scheduled to open as a result of these efforts is the Tysons Corner Play and Learn Children's Center, a business- and parent- sponsored operation that could well become a model for solving some of the nation's child care problem. Already, it is a model of the business community operating at its very best.
The center is scheduled to open Oct. 15 with the capacity to care for 87 children, ranging from 3 months old to 5 years. It will be run by Play and Learn Corporate Child Care, a nonprofit organization founded by Cheri Sheridan, which also runs an office park-based child care center in Landover and the center in Crystal City.
The first step in developing the center came when the Tysons Transportation Association (TYTRAN) did a study that established the need for child care in the Tysons Corner area. TYTRAN then raised $100,000 from 21 companies in start-up funds for the center. It will be located at Tysons Pond, a development of the Westerra Development Corp., a California-based firm.
Sheridan says that start-up costs for centers run between $300,000 and $400,000 -- a prohibitive figure for parents trying to set something up alone. In return for donations, companies get priority in purchasing day care slots for their employes. "A $5,000 donation for a company is a drop in the bucket. Each year they pay an annual fee that allows them to re-up for a year. If they put money into the program, they can write it off as a business expense and they can get something back for it. When you're looking at a $400,000 start-up costs, we need the help from somewhere.
"The biggest obstacle you have to overcome is the image," said Sheridan. "We have to convince the developer that it can be done. When you say 87 preschool-age children, they start to quake. You have to demonstrate that it can work. We took the developer and his wife over to our center in Landover."
In return for setting aside ground-floor space in the building, providing outdoor space for a playground and giving rent concessions to the center, the developer gets a certain number of slots at the center that he then can use as enticements to companies to rent space in his building.
"He can say this space comes with five reservations in the day care center," said Sheridan. "Office parks are changing. They are starting to look for amenities, and day care is a hot amenity right now."
The Tysons Corner slots have been purchased by the 21 companies, at a cost of $1,500 each. An advantage of the office park model, Sheridan points out, is that a small company has the same access to on-site care as a large company. Sheridan recalls that a meeting of Tysons Corner business executives after the original TYTRAN study showed the overwhelming need for day care in that area.
"Everyone just sat there and looked at each other," she said. "No one wanted to be the first to try it. Then Earle Williams, the president of BDM, said BDM will buy 13 slots. A strange kind of muttering went through the room. This had some acceptance. He took the first step and the other companies followed. It was a domino effect."
Companies make the slots available to their employes who then pay the tuition, which ranges from $81 a week to $110, depending on the age of the child. Infant care is the most expensive, and the hardest to find. Sheridan tells of people using messengers to bring applications for the infant care program to her office. "One woman is engaged. She said, 'We're planning on having a child in two years. Please put me on the 1989 waiting list.' "
"If it can work here, it can work in any other area of the country," said Wolf. "It's purely an educational process."
The people who have to be educated are the people who run companies, and those are the people Wolf was able to reach. He represents a district that has a 2.3 percent unemployment rate, and he could make the pitch that on-site day care is good for recruiting employes and keeping them. It's good for the children and for their parents. But the breakthrough came when business leaders in the county understood that it also is good for business.