Lease squeeze forces Lake Stevens day care to close
By Theresa Goffredo
LAKE STEVENS — Out of the mouth of 4-year-old Hallie came a poignant thought.
"We had better hide Toddler Town right away so nobody can find us."
But in the adult world, life’s more complicated than a game of hide-and-seek. In this instance, Toddler Town couldn’t hide from a much bigger opponent. And so the longtime child-care center, which had fought to remain in business, was forced to close Friday.
The children and parents of the 100 families who have come through the years to regard Toddler Town as their second home gathered for a somber ceremony to say goodbye after seven years at Frontier Village. Children, some of whom have spent significant parts of their young lives at Toddler Town, took dog-eared stuffed animals as mementos.
An exhausted and sad Diana Hendren, who started Toddler Town in 1994 with daughter Dana Weaver, tried to remain philosophical.
Hendren said society is going to have to make a choice to invest more in child care, whether it’s raising teachers’ salaries or showing greater respect to those in private industry who care for other people’s children.
In Toddler Town’s case, it appeared to be more important for a large corporation to make another million dollars a year in rent than to honor its lease and establish a lasting relationship in the community, Hendren said.
"It’s a sad situation all the way around," Hendren said by phone before Friday’s gathering. "Somebody is going to have to step up to the plate and answer to the parents who are asking.
"It doesn’t make sense to us," she said. "I imagine in the corporation’s scheme of things, it makes perfect sense to them."
Frontier Village is owned by CT Operating Partnership, Inc., based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The spokesman for the company, Joe Paggi, didn’t return phone calls this week.
Five days before Christmas, Hendren and Weaver learned they were being asked to vacate the building to make way for a second Safeway food store at the north end of Frontier Village.
The women refused to relocate, saying their lease was valid until 2004. They pay $8,100 a month in rent, about $97,200 a year.
They sued in Snohomish County Superior Court, claiming Frontier Village’s owners ignored Toddler Town’s repeated attempts to renew its lease and were illegally trying to boot out the business.
After the lawsuit was filed, Hendren learned that Frontier Village owners were going to file an unlawful retainer Feb. 1, a document that would have sped the matter directly before a judge.
Hopeful for a speedy resolution, Hendren withdrew her lawsuit. But then in what appears to be legal wrangling, Frontier Village’s owners never filed the unlawful retainer.
Instead, on May 12 — just before Mother’s Day — the owners sent Toddler Town a notice to vacate by May 31.
Without a lawsuit, Hendren and Weaver weighed their options.
First, they still owed $2,000 to their attorney from the work he’d done on the original lawsuit. They could have refiled the suit, but figured it would have cost about $10,000, money they didn’t have.
The worst part about not refiling, Hendren said, is not getting her day in court. Her attorney, Matthew Green of Seattle, echoed Hendren’s frustration.
"There was no day in court where the judge had a chance to hear the evidence and ultimately rule Toddler Town, you are right, and the landlord is wrong," Green said. "And that probably won’t occur."
Because of money.
"In this day and age, to show that you’re right and the other side is wrong costs money," Green said.
Money also figured in Hendren’s and Weaver’s options to start another child care center. When they added up what it would cost to remodel another place to suit their needs, the bill came to $125,000. Also, getting permits to open a new center would have taken at least 60 days.
Hendren couldn’t trust her landlord to give her that kind of time, and she was adamant about giving her clients two weeks’ notice. She didn’t want to put parents in a position of choosing between their jobs and their children.
"I couldn’t do that to our parents. I couldn’t just put a sign on the door," Hendren said.
In the end, all 100 families have found accommodations for their children, Hendren said. Two other child care centers, Lake Stevens Christian & Daycare Preschool Academy, and Sherwood Learning Center, have offered to provide after-school care for some of the children.
Hendren said she has been too devastated to plan for the future. But parents know the future won’t be the same now that Toddler Town is gone.
"Thank you Diana and Dana at Toddler Town for all you did for our community," Kris Johnsen said in a letter. "We have lost something very special and, we will miss you."
You can call Herald Writer Theresa Goffredo at 425-339-3097
or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.