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Sidewalks trip daycare plan

To Doug and Kathy Hartley, the blackberry-choked property on the east side of Madison Avenue at New Brooklyn Road looked like an ideal new site for their First Years Daycare operation.

It offered a central location, on the way to the ferry. And the new buildings going up nearby looked like they could add to their customer base.

“Some of the people who will be moving into those (Sakai Village) townhouses will have kids,” Kathy Hartley said. “We thought it was a great spot.”

So they made a deal for the land, designed a 4,600-square-foot building with three outdoor play areas and 17 surface parking spots. They would move there from their present location in the ground floor of a commercial building on Knechtel Way, a building that the Hartleys say is presently for sale.

“We wanted to expand a little bit, build a new building and stabilize our rent,” said Doug Hartley, who teaches high school in Seattle because the day-care operation “won’t support both of us.”

When city officials saw the plans, they agreed the new homes might generate day-care customers.

But they also thought about safety, and the infrastructure that would be required for a day-care operation.

“North Town Woods and Sakai will provide some business for them, but we need to have sidewalk interconnections,” said city engineer Jeff Jensen. “Mom will want to put the little guy in the stroller and take him down (to the daycare).”

The city also thought the access road – a dirt driveway opposite New Brooklyn Road that is actually a public right of way called Casey Street, and gives access to a church parking lot – would have to be expanded and paved.

“That would be a fairly busy intersection there that really needs to be developed as a street,” Jensen said.

But streets and sidewalks cost money – as much as $150,000 on top of the roughly $600,000 the Hartleys had budgeted for the project. Those extra costs have, at least for the nonce, put an end to the plans for a new facility.

The requirements came as something of a surprise to the Hartleys, who approached the city council for help.

“They had an informal meeting with the city the month before, and there were no sidewalk requirements,” Councilwoman Christine Nasser said. “Their plan brought up the requirement, which might not have existed if there were just going to be two houses built on that lot, which the zoning allows.”

The uncertainty over their present location has generated some anxiety for the Hartleys.

Their lease expires in January. They wonder whether new lease rates will be affordable, especially from a new owner, although the fact that they are paying market-rate rent at a time when commercial vacancies are soaring on Bainbridge would seem to make them sought-after tenants.

First Years occupies a special niche in the overall daycare market. It’s the only facility on Bainbridge that will accept infants, and Kathy Hartley estimates that about a third of her 65 to 70 children are under 18 months old.

And it offers extended hours to accommodate ferry commuters, opening at 6 a.m. and staying open until 6:30 p.m.

It’s an expensive market to serve.

“We provide breakfast, lunch and three snacks a day,” she said, “and we furnish cloth diapers.”

The biggest expense, though, is labor. Hartley has 19 employees at present, and has had as many as 23.

“We keep giving them raises, but we can’t afford to give them medical or dental insurance, which seems to be a big issue in recent staff meetings. We’ve still had some employees for 10 years,” she said.

While costs hold steady, the revenue stream fluctuates, particularly during the summer. This past summer, Hartley said, she and her husband had to pump in $10,000 of their own money to cover revenue gaps caused by enrollment drops.

“People take their kids out for a couple of months in the summer,” she said. “But if you lose a couple of kids, you can’t pull out an employee.”

The Hartleys understand why the city requires property owners to pay for improvements like sidewalks and streets, but say it doesn’t translate well to businesses like theirs.

“We don’t have any way to spread those costs out,” Kathy Hartley said, noting that their tuition – currently around $750 per month – is already a strain for many working families.

They wonder if the city could do more to assist businesses like theirs, perhaps by installing the street infrastructure at general taxpayer expense.

Nasser, a mother of two youngsters and a day-care patron, agrees that it’s a problem for the whole community.

“Some people can afford nannies,” she said, “but a lot of parents need day care. How do we treat that and encourage it? There are not enough alternatives available for all families.”

City engineer Jensen said it’s a matter of money.

“We don’t have some huge fund within the budget or the tax structure to do that,” Jensen said. “We depend on the property developers (for improvements).”

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