YMCA King Childcare

Earle Kimel
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

NORTH PORT – King Plastic Corp. and the YMCA of Southwest Florida are partnering to develop an Early Learning Center that could help educate 150 children from six weeks old through voluntary pre-kindergarten.

While priority will be given to the employees of King Plastic – North Port’s largest private employer – the center will be available for children throughout the community.

The proposed center will mark a return of YMCA-run child care to the city after an absence of roughly five years. “I’m just excited about it, “ said Gene Jones, president/CEO of the YMCA of Southwest Florida. “It’s going to be a phenomenal opportunity for us to serve that community and to me, the beginning of expanding our services in North Port.

“As we see that community continue to grow, we know there’s going to be a lot of services that are needed and the Y wants to be there.”

The Y now serves about 730 children at its four early learning academies – two in Venice, one in Port Charlotte and one in Bonita Springs – and its 2024-26 Strategic Plan calls for 90% of the early learners meeting or exceeding readiness standards to start Kindergarten.

“Building an Early learning Academy onsite at King Plastic isn’t just an investment for our employees and business; it is an investment in our community and the future of the next generation,” King Plastic Corp. President Jeff King said in a news release. “The opportunity to give back to the North Port community and to create an environment where families and children can thrive is a wonderful and exciting opportunity for all of us at King Plastic.

“Partnering with the YMCA of Southwest Florida ensures the operation of a first-class early learning academy, and we are excited to complete this new Early Learning Academy as soon as possible.”

A five-year absence of service

Jones took over leadership of the Venice-based YMCA in October 2019, shortly after the nonprofit stopped providing daycare services in the city, when it was still known as the SKY Family YMCA. 

When SKY merged with the Charlotte County YMCA in 2017, it inherited a 67-slot daycare facility. 

The daycare was operated out of 5930 Sam Shapos Way, which is part of a 10-building government-owned complex at Dallas White Park.

The city-owned facility had been poorly maintained, with an inadequate kitchen and was frequently plagued by plumbing issues. 

In 2018, SKY wanted to partner with the city of North Port to build a 120-child preschool modeled after one it opened that April in partnership with PGT Innovations.

Traction never materialized on that effort, as city officials chose to look at the Dallas White campus as a whole, in an attempt to foster a public-private partnership to redevelop that area. 

During that time the Y started a transition from a daycare philosophy to early childhood education centers.

YMCA of Southwest Florida currently operates four of those academies. The newest one, the 11,000-square-foot Suwyn Early Learning Center, with room for 150 children, opened in Bonita Springs, in the fall of 2020.

Bonita Springs YMCA

Battling a ‘childcare desert’ 

The Early Childhood Education Center that the YMCA plans to build in partnership with King Plastic would – with some modifications – be modeled architecturally after the Bonita Springs center but operated in a similar fashion as the center built in cooperation with PGT Innovations. 

In that model, PGT employees get first preference for open slots, while the center also has extended operating hours to accommodate for different employment shifts.

“We are still in the process of securing funding,” Jones said. “We’re working with King Plastic to see what portion they’re going to do. Of course the Y will also have a portion and we’re working with municipalities for some opportunities there but we are in ‘Go,’ mode.”

North Port city commissioners referenced the YMCA project at two recent open meetings – one to discuss finance options for a new police station and one to kick off the 2024-25 fiscal year budget process – but did not express any interest in contributing city funds on the project.

City Manager Jerome Fletcher, who also sits on the YMCA board of directors, told the commission that there may be a projected $500,000 shortfall in that funding plan.

“We have asked at the state level, we have asked at the county level,” Fletcher said during the March 19 budget workshop. The YMCA project was listed as a possible capital item for the city to con sider.

City Commissioner Barbrara Langdon said, “I think our role is to help facilitate that funding; it may or may not result in a budget item.”

Fletcher noted that, like other communities, the city of North Port had more available daycare slots prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In its announcement of the project the YMCA cited multiple childcare center closures after Hurricane Ian and characterized North Port as a childcare desert.

Once funding and permits are secured it should take about 12 months for the facility to be built. 

Jones said it is extremely important to bring early learning services to North Port but added it’s too soon to determine what other services the YMCA of Southwest Florida would bring back to the community.

“You look at the growing community that it is, you look at the kids in that community and the need for quality child care, we find that it’s essential at this stage to get into the community,” he said. “That’s going to give us a great foundation to serve those who need us the most – the youngest kids.”

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