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Each week, WFAE's "Morning Edition" hosts get a rundown of the biggest business and development stories from The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter.

COVID-19 grant money for childcare centers expiring soon


If you’re a parent looking to enroll your kid in a childcare center, prepare for even longer waiting lists … and maybe higher costs. Centers already faced staffing shortages and inadequate funding. Adding to that is the end of the North Carolina Childcare Stabilization Grant, which was created to help bolster centers during the pandemic. It’s set to expire in December.

For more, we turn now to Tony Mecia of the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter for our segment BizWorthy.

Marshall Terry: Tony, the money from this grant has been used to pay for both additional workers and higher wages at childcare centers. With it going away, are we going to see more people leaving these positions?

Tony Mecia: Unfortunately, Marshall, that is the fear. We went out and talked to a number of childcare centers, they said that with this grant expiring at the end of the year, that's really going to make it very difficult for a lot of these centers to keep operating as they are now. Marshall, because of the staffing shortages, there were really only about 39,000 slots available for children in Mecklenburg County at centers throughout the county, even though the number of licensed spots is 48,000. So you can see that the staffing shortages are already having an effect there.

These are not high-paying positions. The typical pay is $12 an hour, oftentimes without benefits. And just with the employment market the way it is, a lot of these folks have other opportunities to go work somewhere else for more money, and the fear is that if this grant expires, it's going to cause even more problems in the childcare centers' ability to pay workers.

Terry: Well, is anything in the works to help childcare centers and to offset the loss of the grant money and to beef up staffing?

Mecia: Well, a lot of them are trying to lobby the General Assembly to include money for childcare centers in the North Carolina budget, which is being considered in Raleigh. They're hopeful to kind of couch it as, 'Look, this is a business issue.' A lot of businesses are going to have problems if their workers can't put their kids in childcare.

So they're hopeful that there can be some money put into the North Carolina budget for that.

Terry: All right. Well, onto real estate now. The number of homes for sale listed in the Charlotte area was down 25% in May compared to the same month last year. That's according to the Canopy Realtor Association. So why are folks staying put, Tony?

Mecia: Marshall, over the last few years, when the economy was very strong and interest rates were low, a lot of people either refinanced their houses or bought their houses at low rates, say around 2% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. Those rates have gone up, I think, as we all know over the last year, they're now around 7%. So that means if you're going to move, you're going to pay a lot more — so people are staying put. They're not putting their house on the market quite as much.

This is really somewhat of a continuation of what we've seen over the last few months in the housing market, which has been slower. A lot of realtors were hoping it would pick up this summer, but it is a little cooler than it was in the previous few years.

Terry: Okay. Now to uptown, where new data shows Charlotte is below average in post-COVID return to downtown foot traffic. We've talked before about the number of office towers that have vacancies with more workers staying home. Is that what's behind Charlotte's ranking?

Mecia: That's part of it. I mean, you just really don't have as many people coming in full-time. The banks and Duke Energy and a lot of the major employers in Charlotte are still largely on hybrid work schedules in which people come in, maybe, three days a week. A study by the University of Toronto puts Charlotte 38th out of 63 cities for the return to office, said that this winter, the number was 58% of the level of people uptown, compared with the same period before the pandemic. The national average is around 60%. Uptown boosters say that this is a national issue, not just the Charlotte issue.

They say that really the proper comparison is not Charlotte 2023 compared to Charlotte 2019, but really Charlotte versus Atlanta, Nashville, Indianapolis and some of our peer cities —and they think Charlotte is doing well. They also say there's a large pipeline of projects in the works that once things turn around, it'll be game on again in uptown.

Terry: Finally, you report some East Charlotte neighborhood groups are backing a plan to bring a sports complex to part of the old Eastland Mall site. So are we finally nearing the end of this saga?

Mecia: A lot of people hope so, Marshall. You know, Eastland Mall closed in 2010, and there's a portion of the site that the city has been eyeing for some sort of a sports facility. There are two contenders left. One is this indoor sports idea that would have tennis courts, volleyball courts and pickleball courts. That one is the one that a lot of the neighbors seem to be favoring. There's also a proposal to use that space for festivals, outdoor soccer fields and an EA Sports tech center.

The City Council's going to decide on this, sounds like, in the next few months. Both of them are asking for about $30 million in tax money. City Council, this week, voted to commit that money, but they're still having to choose between those two options.

Support for WFAE's BizWorthy comes from UNC Charlotte's Belk College of Business, Sharon View Federal Credit Union and our listeners.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.