Way to Grow Early Learning Center along Dogwood Drive on Thursday, in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Way to Grow Early Learning Center along Dogwood Drive on Thursday, in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Everyone was just blindsided’: Everett child care center to close

The decision from an off-site business manager leaves nearly 60 families in a lurch to find last-minute alternatives.

EVERETT — Dozens of local families are scrambling to find child care after the owner of an Everett center abruptly decided to close the business this month.

On Monday, Bing Huang, owner of Way to Grow Early Learning Center, notified staff that the child care business is closing July 29. The next day, parents received a letter noting the closure was due to “some major snags with our lease renewal.”

“It was immediate shock and disbelief,” said Melanie Vazquez, mother of a 3-year-old enrolled at Way to Grow. “Everyone was just blindsided. There was no warning whatsoever.”

Three families told The Daily Herald they had never heard Huang’s name before. They primarily work with the on-site facility director Liz Steele.

According to a marketing packet obtained by The Herald, Huang co-owns the business with her husband, Yongqiang Hu . Hu lives in China and “never sees the business,” while Huang travels back and forth between Seattle and China, according to the document. Neither are fluent in English, and they work with a translator who acts as a liaison between the business owners and the staff. Huang and her translator could not be reached for comment. Steele said she learned of the decision Monday with staff, and she hadn’t been told many details about the reason for the closure.

Carlos Chaves-Velando owns the property. He and his wife opened Way to Grow in 2013. They sold the business to Huang in 2017, but kept the building. Huang signed a 5-year lease that set rent at $4,200 per month for the full term of the agreement. That was well below what Chaves-Velando originally wanted, but Huang “played hardball” during lease negotiations.

Chaves-Velando told The Herald that he does not know “what triggered this” decision to close. A proposed rent increase might play a role. About a year ago, Chaves-Velando told Huang a new lease would bring the rent up to “market value” of $7,200 per month.

Huang responded that “she wasn’t going to be able to absorb an increase like that,” according to Chaves-Velando. But Chaves-Velando said all the business documents he’s seen from Huang indicate that Way to Grow is fiscally stable. The marketing plan notes the center has “a great reputation in the community” and has “emerged from COVID with strong revenues and profit growth.”

“They’ve increased the tuition by 60% since we sold it, and so I don’t see what the problem is. … It’s a profitable business,” Chaves-Velando said. “It’s doing well. It’s serving the community. I don’t see why this should be happening.”

About a month ago, he learned that Huang had been marketing the business for sale. The marketing document says Huang wanted to sell the business to move back to China.

This week, he learned from a call with a “not-so-happy parent” that Huang had decided to close the business entirely. Huang had not notified Chaves-Velando of her intention to leave the property, he said.

“I sympathize (with the families), but this is really out of my hands,” he added. “I’m a willing participant in this. I’m willing to sell the building. I’m willing to lease the building. But I do want to get fair market value this time.”

Way to Grow is licensed to serve 59 children. Steele said the preschool is currently full with a waiting list.

Those families will need to find another place to go after July 29. The business will liquidate its equipment and furniture in August, Steele said. The center’s 14 employees, including Steele, will lose their jobs once the doors close.

“What’s so hard is there is such a need for this in the community,” Steele said. “And what’s such a shame is that we have this beautiful building built up for this, and it will be empty now.”

According to the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, nearly 35,000 children in Snohomish County needed child care services in 2021, but just shy of 10,000 spots were available through licensed centers locally. A state child care task force found in surveys that nearly one in five parents said they turned down a job offer or promotion due to child care issues, and parents indicated that long wait lists were a significant barrier to accessing child care.

August McKenna, a father of a 2-year-old at Way to Grow, said his wife started contacting other local child care providers almost as soon as they heard their daycare was closing. Like many families, they’ve hit a wall in their search.

“Most of the places she reached out to have said, ‘Our waiting list is six months long.’ Scratch that off the list,” he said. “We haven’t been able to find anyone who can say, ‘We have a space for you right now.’ “

McKenna said he and his wife are fortunate to have employers that are willing to let them work from home until they can find another permanent care option. In the Vazquez family, Melanie’s husband Raymond plans to take on a “second job” of watching his son while he works from home as usual.

Michael Gaynier isn’t as fortunate. He and his wife put a deposit down to enroll their 9-month-old daughter and 4-year-old son at Way to Grow this fall. His wife is returning to work after maternity leave, and he just started a new job.

“There’s no way I could a watch a baby and a 4-year-old. … Honestly, we’ve had to go back to the drawing table,” Gaynier said. The family will receive the deposit back, according to Huang’s letter. Gaynier said his children are on wait lists at another child care center in Everett. And they are trying to get on the wait list at the Heatherwood YMCA.

“A lot of these places aren’t answering the phone. They’re busy, right, and they’re full,” he said.

Steele sent a personal letter to parents suggesting they reach out to the current staff members for personal nanny services. It’s one strategy she thinks could help both parties: The families get child care, while her staff members get new jobs.

McKenna said his “heart breaks” for the other Way to Grow families and the staff members affected by the closure.

“This sort of situation shouldn’t happen,” he said. “Parents shouldn’t be left in a lurch with less than 17 calendar days notice. It shouldn’t take 6 months to find new care.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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