Additional childcare opportunities could sprout from growth of garden

Rezoning of Dr. John Wilson Community Garden could lead to growth of early education facility

Fred McCormick

A public hearing at town hall on Monday, June 12 could impact the future of child care in Black Mountain.

The board of aldermen will consider rezoning 17 White Pine Drive, the 10-acre site directly south of I-40 and makes up much of Veterans Park. The land is home to the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden, which was slated to expand in the park's master plan adopted last fall.

To make those changes the land would need to be rezoned, which could provide an opportunity for the Children and Friends Enrichment Center.

The community garden moved to its current location in 2004. In the years since, the garden has grown to 64 plots, producing over 3,000 pounds of food each year.

"Part of the (Veterans Park) master plan was to expand and update the community garden," town manager Matt Settlemyer said. "That's the impetus for the potential rezoning."

The 41-plus acres that comprise the north side of Veterans Park are zoned for office and institutional use, while 17 White Pine Drive is zoned town residential. Rezoning the property would bring uniformity to the park, according to Settlemyer, while allowing for the town to make the intended improvements to the garden.

John DeWitt, who sits on the board Children and Friends, saw the potential to address a need in the town.

"I'm also on the (Verner Center for Early Learning) board too and we serve all of Buncombe County," DeWitt said. "And we have a waiting list of 400 children. There is a crisis of need in this county for quality child care."

Children and Friends has served Black Mountain in several locations since 1979, according to board chairperson Linda Hobson.

"There is no more space, but yet the telephone rings constantly with families looking for child care," she said. "We spent most of 2016 looking at ways we could buy another building so we can expand."

Until recently, according to Hobson, there were only 200 daycare slots in Buncombe County for infants.

"We have 10 of those slots," she said. "It's a tricky room to operate because of state ratios. You have to have one teacher per five children."

In November, Children and Friends learned of a grant available through the State Employees Credit Union Foundation.

"We were told we were in a good position to apply, in 18-24 months, for a $1.8 million grant," Hobson said. "That would allow us to build a new facility. There are things we have to have in place in order to apply and one of them is property."

The need for early child care and development will increase in the Swannanoa Valley with the arrival of Avadim Technologies in the coming months, according to DeWitt.

"They're looking to hire over 500 employees," he said. "When you hire that many people you're going to need child care, that's just the bottom line."

DeWitt approached the town about the possibility of using some of the land on 17 White Pine Drive for a new facility.

"This is a perfect place for people in Black Mountain as far as location is concerned, since we know that whole area will look completely different in the coming years," he said. "And that land isn't zoned appropriately now, so this is a good time to change it."

Expanding the popular community garden and finding a location to add childcare services in the area "dovetailed nicely," Settlemyer said.

"We know the need (for child care) is there," he added. "This is an area that can accommodate that need and those kinds of areas in town are limited."

The details surround how the expansion would work have yet to be ironed out, according to Hobson, but the capacity of Children and Friends could grow from 80 children to "around 150-160 children."

"We would also double the size of our staff because of state ratios," she added. "And we have 19 or 20 on staff right now."

The proximity to the community garden also adds value to the location from Children and Friends' perspective, according to DeWitt.

"The grantor is also interested in programs that can teach children about nutrition," he said. "Being around the community garden helps accomplish that."