An Empty Platter: Roundtable exposes growing child care and housing gap for workforce recruitment

Michelle Waldinger is one of many now facing the unenviable task of trying to recruit workers to Door County. It’s unenviable for the director of human resources at Marine Travelift not because she can’t offer good wages or a good career, but because of the growing challenges in finding housing and child care. 

“I can’t tell people to relocate their entire family here and basically hand them an empty platter because they have no place to go for their children,” she said. Instead, her relocation packages include Kewaunee and Brown County, where many of her new workers end up living. 

Waldinger summed up her challenge during a roundtable discussion with representatives from Gov. Tony Evers’ administration at the Door County Community Foundation on April 24. 

Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, was in attendance with other officials during the 12th roundtable to hear from local leaders and recipients of nearly $60 million in grants to support workforce and child care development. The United Way received a $3.5 million workforce innovation grant in December to support housing, child care and workforce-development projects across the county. 

“We wanted to go back and talk with the groups about how it’s going,” Hughes said. “Is there anything we can do to support you, and understand exactly what’s happening with your grant. We’ve been able to make connections with one grant and another grant.”

Hughes and her team heard about how the Door County Housing Partnership, child care centers and private housing developers are working together on innovative local solutions. But they also heard frustration from employers about the set of problems that continues to stymie efforts to create a well-rounded, stable community despite the many lifestyle advantages Door County has to offer.

Denise Stillman of Foremost Management Services, which manages four resorts on the peninsula, said problems that were once a priority haven’t been solved, and they’ve only been displaced by even bigger workforce issues since she moved here in the 1990s.

“The summer workforce-housing problem has been a problem for 30 years, but that’s not even the thing anymore,” she said. “We’ve learned to swallow that up and figure that out. The real problem lies now in full-time people: our teachers, our law enforcement, the people we want to work in our area so they can see our kids and come to sporting events. They can’t come to watch a basketball game and drive back to Green Bay. That’s ridiculous. The problem has elevated from ‘We need to house our seasonal workers’ to ‘We need everybody to afford housing,’ and the definition of affordable is ridiculous.”

In 2017, the Wisconsin legislature passed a measure requiring municipalities to allow homeowners to use their properties as short-term rentals for tourists, limiting local municipal options to regulate the practice. Other states give local governments more flexibility. Santa Monica, California, for example, reached a settlement with Airbnb, one of the leading vacation-rental sites, requiring a host to be on-site for a rental of fewer than 31 days. Officials said the measure helped protect housing for residents. 

Cori McFarlane, deputy director of the Door County Department of Health and Human Services, said the issue is accelerating for county government. 

 “We really struggle to recruit and maintain employees in the county system,” she said, and added that the demographics of the county’s workforce have changed dramatically during the past decade from older staff to young parents struggling to put child care together. 

“I know we have lost at least four employees in our department because of child care issues, and another half dozen juggling it,” she said. “We have so much absenteeism driven by child care issues.”

McFarlane said a large number of county employees are commuting from Green Bay and the Fox Valley, and many vacancies are related to child care and housing issues. The young families the county has long coveted are coming, then leaving, she said, for communities where child care is available. 

Stillman pointed to the continued growth of short-term rentals, which take housing out of the rental market and the entry-level-home basket. 

“There needs to be a way governmentally to get a handle on short-term rentals,” she said. “With people building homes and selling homes just for vacation rentals, it’s killing us.”

At the Northern Door Children’s Center, Director Cindy Trinkner-Peot said the issues she was facing before COVID-19 have only accelerated during the past two years. 

“What I’m recognizing in northern Door County is we used to be a seasonal child care center,” she said. The center’s greatest demand came in summer as the tourism economy heated up. “Now we have the same employees this time of year that I used to have in May, and I still have the same spike in summer.”

She faces the same struggle to find staff that other employers face. 

“I can’t hire anyone either,” she said. “So even if we fix all of these other problems, there is still no one to care for the children.”

Stillman is seeing the same spike in off-season demands, saying her staff is working the same now as they do during the summer. It’s a good problem to have, she said, but it’s stretching the staff she can find. 

“The market’s not working anywhere,” said Mariah Goode, director of the county’s Department of Land Use Services and a cofounder of the Door County Housing Partnership. “These problems are happening across the country, but our peninsula is unique in that our geography also works against us.”

Getting labor and materials to the county costs more, if you can even find them. 

“People are building like crazy,” Goode said. “My office has been insane the last couple of years. But they’re not building things that are affordable. They’re people working remotely or retiring to the county and adding on to their home.”

And when affordable housing is proposed, Waldinger said, old stigmas often pump the brakes. 

“We need to get over the stigma with affordable housing,” she said. “Affordable housing does not mean that a bunch of poor criminals are moving into our community.”

The discussion, unfortunately, did not reveal any easy solutions – only a problem accelerating faster than organizations and federal, state and local governments have the fuel to catch up to. 

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