With her two toddlers safely buckled up in the back seat of her white SUV, Katie Davis of Windsor visited on Friday the empty lot where Mark West Community Preschool once stood.
Wild sunflowers, oats, rye grass and other weeds obscured any evidence of the child care center that before last October once hosted 60 children. All that remains are a rusted swing, a garden trellis, small lunch tables and benches and the corpse of one of 18 chickens that could not be evacuated.
Davis, whose 3-year-old daughter McKenzie attended the preschool, stopped by the site to remove an old sign for a spaghetti feed she organized in January to help rebuild the preschool.
“It was an amazing place — I want to be able to send him through, as well,” Davis said, referring to her son Bradford, who is almost 2 years old.
That hope depends on whether business partners Renee Whitlock-Hemfouvanh and Jenny Kenyon can raise the $1.5 million to $2 million it will now cost to rebuild. Whitlock-Hemfouvanh, who also visited the site Friday afternoon, said the roughly $630,000 insurance payout for the property barely covered the mortgage she and Kenyon took out when they purchased the facility in 2013.
The $300,000 they invested in the business for remodeling, landscaping, furniture, office and school equipment, and startup payroll costs was a total loss.
Mark West Community Preschool, one of three preschools Whitlock-Hemfouvanh and Kenyon operate, has since relocated to a much smaller property near Coddingtown Mall. But the move has led to a significant loss of child care slots, with the preschool’s roster of children going from 120 to 80 kids and its staff of 14 teachers shrinking down to eight.
The two largest infernos on the North Coast last October, the Tubbs and Nuns fires, destroyed 5,420 homes and commercial buildings, mostly in Sonoma County. Among that devastation were 15 licensed child care facilities, including 11 family child care homes and four preschool and after-school programs, displacing 444 children across the county.
Local child care experts say that loss was a huge blow to local families, particularly in a county that suffered from a short supply of quality, affordable child care even before the fires.
Nine months after the firestorm, plans to bring back those child care centers and preschools are hampered by the same obstacles that have crippled local efforts to rebuild neighborhoods, especially rising construction costs and insufficient insurance payouts.
“I’m hearing that there’s just not enough insurance, that they’re having to take out business loans,” said Tiffani Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs.
County officials and child care advocates say the need to rebuild the child care sector is crucial.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who sits on the First 5 commission, said the shortage of child care in Sonoma County is similar to that of the impacted housing market, and the fires only made it worse.
“It’s heartbreaking because the people who are working in child care aren’t there because of the money, they’re there because they love children,” Hopkins said.
To meet the demand for child care facilities, the First 5 commission is “front-loading” grants, spending funds this year that would have been spent three years from now, Hopkins said.