Area businesses combine forces to open daycare center

This story was published in the March 2018 issue of Prairie Business.

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When Jenna Berreth began looking for daycare after finding out she was pregnant, she says she started “freaking out.” Would she be able to keep her job as an administrative assistant at Dakota Gasification Company? No daycares in the Hazen area had room for an infant.

Around the same time, Laura and Jon Dronen, who also work for Basin Electric, Laura as a process engineering supervisor at Dakota Gas and Jon as a procurement operations administrator for Basin Electric (Dakota Gas is a subsidiary of Basin Electric Power Cooperative), were in a daycare dilemma of their own – their longtime provider had decided to retire, and they had called dozens of others with no luck. After finding one that could take their two children, they learned that she was only open during the hours they were supposed to be at work and was closed on Wednesdays. “We were very lucky that our supervisors were willing to allow us to work flexible hours, but we burned a lot of vacation time since she was only open four days a week,” Laura Dronen says.

After six weeks, that provider, too, decided to leave the child care industry, and the Dronens were left wondering how they were going to keep their jobs. “I had several conversations with my employer telling him I may have to quit if we couldn’t find suitable care for our children,” Laura says,” and Jon had the same conversation with his supervisor.”

Laura and Jon’s supervisors began talking with other supervisors who said many of their employees were in the same situation.

After seeing a recent study that showed a deficiency of nearly 300 child care spaces in Mercer County, a number that was said to increase by more than 20 percent by 2025, Basin Electric, never a stranger to innovation, decided to do something about it.

In May 2016, Erin Huntimer, project coordinations representative for Basin Electric, began contacting businesses in the Mercer County area asking if they would be interested in combining forces to help alleviate the area’s daycare shortage.

She contacted Lori Capouch, rural development director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, who helps guide groups of people through the business development process. Coincidentally, she had also been researching cooperative child care models for two years. “There is one in California, and I knew that same concept could work in North Dakota,” Capouch says, “especially in an area like Mercer County where many of its residents are familiar with co-ops.”

Before long, seven area employers joined forces with Basin Electric to form Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care, a cooperative that would operate a child care facility in Hazen.

One of these partners is Union State Bank in Hazen. Even though its employees didn’t have an immediate need for child care, CEO and President Christie Obenauer says she and the bank’s board of directors felt very strongly they should do what they could to help.

“Western North Dakota is dealing with negative unemployment, so we need to do what we can to attract people to the area to fill vacant jobs,” Obenauer says. “One of the first questions potential employees ask is what the daycare situation is like in the area. We need to have child care available so parents can work.”

By December of that same year, Obenauer says “divine intervention, literally” happened when the New Bethel Congregational Church, which held its last service that fall, approached the cooperative’s board about buying the church building.

“It was just perfect,” Huntimer says. “The church placed great value in ministering to youth and families, and its members wanted to leave a lasting legacy in the community. For them, knowing the building wouldn’t sit empty and deteriorate, that it would still be filled with kids and life, made it a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

While the church building was in relatively good shape, it was necessary to remodel it to make it work for a daycare center. Again, the partners and members of the community stepped up to make this happen, and aside from the plumbing and electrical, the whole remodel was completed by volunteers.

The Dronens were among the most dedicated. “I’d say we put in about 200-300 hours each,” Jon Dronen says. “At least one of us was there most Saturdays, putting in about a 10-hour day and lots of evenings and many Sundays after church. We were totally invested in the project because we wanted to see it succeed.”

On May 30, 2017, less than six months from the purchase of the building, Energy Capital Cooperative Child Care opened for business – just one year from concept to completion.

“This daycare center has been a godsend to our community,” Laura Dronen says. “Since we started talking about opening it, the Hazen/Beulah area lost at least four more daycare providers, so it couldn’t have happened at a better time. And our kids love going there – even our son who doesn’t do well with change has been happy there since day one.”

Berreth, the pregnant mother who was “freaking out” looking for child care, had her baby and was able to bring her to the center right after her maternity leave was over. “We just love it,” she says of the center. “The staff is great about communicating to us about our daughter’s day – what she does, how her day went, if she had any issues. And it’s large enough so we won’t have to schedule having another baby around when daycare has room to fit one in, which I know does happen.”

Berreth and the Dronens agree that one of the biggest benefits of the center is that it’s always open – they don’t have to worry about daycare calling last minute and having to find other arrangements or take vacation to stay home. “It makes things a lot easier,” Laura says. “It’s hard to supervise a group of people when you’re not at work.”

“I smile every time I get to talk about this project,” Obenauer says. “It feels great to be part of something bigger than ourselves. To see a group of businesses come together to solve a problem facing our community and our businesses. The way it came together is nothing short of incredible.”

Energy Capital Cooperative partners

The following short videos are part of a campaign that will soon be featured on social media.



  1. […] Visit Basin Electric’s blog, where the article was also featured: Basin Electric Live Wire […]

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