Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 26, 2014
Otter House to close its doors at end of August
On an early summer morning, Castine Community Child Development Center, aka “Otter House,” had a capacity crowd of children swinging, sliding and keeping very busy outside. Above, Chloe Skillin and Ian Evans engage in creative play, while Phillip Cotoni and Angelina Cotoni take advantage of the swing set. The Castine, Maine childcare center will close on August 29, 2014, but not from lack of clients.
by Anne Berleant
Castine Community Child Development Center, better known as “Otter House,” is shutting down after 18 years, according to its board of directors. Its final day will be August 29.
The reason behind the closure is financial, said board member Jessica Rollerson.
“The board spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it float, and it just came up that the numbers weren’t working. We tried every different angle,” she said.
One of the problems, Rollerson explained, is that Otter House operates as a “drop-in” center, where parents sign up children for open slots when needed. While some children attend on a regular schedule, last-minute cancellations leave the slot empty and unpaid for. “In the end, the drop-in [model] just doesn’t work,” said Rollerson.
That doesn’t mean the center isn’t sometimes filled to its 12-child capacity.
“We are chock-full this summer,” said director Lisa Bradford, who has worked at Otter House for six years, beginning as assistant director in 2008.
Otter House began in the fall of 1995, when Maine Maritime Academy professor Barbara Fleck moved to Castine with two small children and found there was no local child care available. She helped start the childcare center at the Trinity Church, which offered most of its downstairs space. Otter House registered as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 1996.
“The church is really the only reason Otter House can [provide services],” Rollerson said. “We’re very grateful to the church. They’re very supportive.”
During the school year, the school bus would drop off children for the afternoon hours to join the 1- to 4-year-olds for snacks, games, outdoor play and educational programs. The day begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., and Otter House wouldn’t close for vacations, most school snow days and minor holidays.
According to Rollerson, for childcare to work in Castine, it needs “a completely different model.” Rollerson operated Chickadee Child Care in Orland for three years, closing it shortly after her family moved to Castine in 2012, and while she kept some slots open for last-minute drop-ins, most were filled as contracted service.
“I don’t think [Otter House] was meant to be a business,” Rollerson said, “but a community-based [service].”
However, she said the board agrees that Castine needs a childcare center.
“I don’t even know at this point,” said parent Heather Gray, when asked how the absence of Otter House will affect her. Currently, two of her children attend the childcare center, and while her need will be gone in the fall, when her youngest enters school, “it would have been difficult” this summer and in past years without Otter House.
“There are certainly parents in town who are nervous,” Rollerson said.
Other community members are also concerned. When Sue Macdonald announced the closing of Otter House at a June 9 Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, she described it “as a great economic loss to our community as a drawing card, not to have day care.” She echoed Rollerson’s statement that the issue was “not the number of students [but the] issue of management.”
The CED is “not empowered” to act on the situation, said committee member Tony Politano, “but we can’t ignore it…It’s something that’s there and needs to be solved.” He equated the closing with that of a Castine church closing. “I consider it at that level of impact on the town.”
“Once we lose this facility and [parents] go elsewhere, it’s going to be hard to whistle them back,” Macdonald said.
But for its last summer, Otter House will continue to operate and to hold its annual 5-K walk/run fundraiser on July 4. “It’s a tradition, and it’s important for us to go out with all of our bills paid,” said Rollerson.
Bradford is organizing a farewell barbecue at Fort Madison at summer’s end for “anyone who’s ever been a part of Otter House”—and anyone who has not. “It’s so sad,” she said. “I’m going to miss the kids. This has been home to so many families.”