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Daycare closing leaves 70 families in the lurch

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Approximately 70 families are in limbo as Jean’s Kids Palace, a daycare in Whittier, faces possible closure.

The privately run daycare is located in the Old Whittier School near the Jackson-Swain county line and services children ages birth to 12 years old. The building was owned by Doug Revis of Revis Hardware in Whittier and has been for sale for several years. However, the $500,000 price tag — more than $160,000 over tax value — was too expensive for daycare director Jean Cochran to purchase.

Now, the building has been sold to a Florida-based professional photographer who plans to renovate it and open a photography school and gallery.

“We’re either going to have to relocate or close the doors,” Cochran said.

Closing would leave families from Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Qualla Boundary without childcare and the daycare’s 17 employees out of work. Cochran has been looking for a new home, but the search is proving harder than expected.

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“There’s just no where to go. We haven’t been able to locate a building that could house our children so that we could stay in the general area,” Cochran said.

The situation has parents like Andy Queen worried and scrambling to come up with a back-up plan should the daycare close. Queen lives in Bryson City, but drives about 15 minutes to work at AGL Gas Company in Whittier each day. Her office is just down the hill from the daycare, a definite bonus as her 10-month-old daughter has been in ill health and requires extra care, which the daycare has accommodated.

“It’s hard to find people trustworthy enough to take care of an infant,” Queen said.

If the daycare closed, not only would Queen need to find someone to take care of her infant, she also has a 6-year-old daughter who is enrolled in the After School program now, but would need watching during the summer.

“I’m not going to count on that being there,” Queen said, referring to Jean’s Kids Palace summer program.

Queen has talked to another woman she goes to church with about taking care of her 10-month-old, but her costs most likely will go up. Jean’s Kids Palace is partnered with the Southwestern Child Development Commission, which helps low-income parents afford childcare.

“I’m on subsidy, so I’m going to have to pay her more than I’m paying now,” Queen said. “I can’t expect her to take what I’m paying on subsidy.”

For all parents, finding another daycare is nearly impossible as there are waiting lists on SCDC daycares and a shortage of openings across the region, making it hard to absorb a 70-child influx.

“There are no slots,” Cochran said.

An added complication is that parents and staff members are unsure of what kind schedule they’re working with.

New building owner J.R. vanLienden’s plans are to operate a photography school for professionals and amateurs on a four-day workshop schedule.

“I would like to be able to in the end of March have the first classes,” he said.

A father of four children ranges in ages from 14 to 1 year old, vanLiendan said he is trying to work with the daycare to give Cochran time to figure out what she wants to do.

However, the building needs safety upgrades including a firewall in order to continue to house the daycare, regardless of any other plans, vanLiendan said. Consequently, vanLiendan said he told Cochran that if the daycare paid for a firewall, children could continue coming there for up to a year.

“I’ll stay here as long as I can,” Cochran said. “He has his own plans for the building. He has to be able to make this work for him.”

In addition to hosting photography workshops, vanLienden plans to build 25 two-bedroom cottages and cabins on the school’s five-acre property to house students.

“We plan for them to have many different looks and feelings to them, keeping some of the Disney-type theming we grew up with while working there when we were first married,” vanLienden said of himself and his wife of 15 years.

There also is planned a restaurant that could be opened to the public, an arts and crafts gallery, and various other workshops such as woodworking and beading, depending on what classroom space in the old school is not being used.

Meanwhile, Cochran’s hoping to find a permanent solution and be able to provide the daycare’s children and parents with an answer some time soon.

“Just about everyday, ‘Do you know anything yet, have you found out anything yet,” Cochran said. “We’re being asked constantly.”

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