Finding good childcare in Charlotte is a challenge.
Especially if it’s just for a few odd hours here and there. Nannies and babysitters need regularity. Daycares close outside of regular hours, and they’re super expensive.
And in many markets, that’s where hourly drop-in childcare fills the void. These places will watch your child for short periods of time, usually from a storefront in a shopping center.
The appeal is clear to see. It’s on-demand. It’s outside of your home. You don’t have to worry about checking a babysitter’s schedule. It’s cheap.
But it’s also nearly impossible to find in the Charlotte area.
Looking for a morning’s respite while I Christmas shopped a few weeks back, I scoured Google for a good option. Nada.
Just to be sure, I put in a public records request to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for a list of all the drop-in centers in Mecklenburg County. While these facilities aren’t regulated by the state, the law requires them to register with their name and address.
That pulled up 64 drop-in facilities, but nearly every single one was a part of a fitness centers, country clubs and churches across Charlotte. Several more were standalone child care centers that had closed.
The Agenda could only find four drop-in childcare centers still open in the entire county. None are in Charlotte. What gives?
Interviews with owners of drop-in childcare centers — both still in operation and those that have closed — reveal a patchwork of challenges to people wanting to open one of their own.
But center owners are also optimistic that the model could work in more areas of Charlotte.
How does drop-in childcare work in Charlotte?
According to state regulations, drop-in childcare centers cannot watch a child for more than four hours a day. They’re supposed to be able to get in touch with the parent and have the parent return to get the child within 15 minutes.
Pricing generally runs $8 to $10 per hour for the first child, with discounts for additional children. Drop-in centers will also generally give deeper discounts who buy bundles of hours in advance. For example, KidTime in Huntersville charges as little as $5 per hour if the parent buys one of their larger bundles of hours in advance.
Child-watchers generally make somewhere between minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) to $9 per hour, and you need at least two or three at any given time, depending on how many children are there.
A typical day, according to owners, is for there to be about a dozen children at a time, with two child watchers. That’s a revenue of $1,296 per day, minus labor costs of $216.
Most of the centers are located in high-traffic shopping centers, to allow parents to go run their errands or go out to dinner on a date night with their spouse.
What are the challenges?
Building trust. It takes a lot of effort to build up a client base, and then to keep them coming back. “Unless you already kind of had a client base in child care, it’s kind of hard to get into,” said April Hayes, who runs KiddyKare in Cornelius. She said she started off doing babysitting and built up a reputation before opening her drop-in center. “A lot of people don’t trust just anybody with their kids for a couple hours.”
Aging customers. No, not the parents. The kids. The sweet spot is from age 3 to 5, and then the kids start going to kindergarten. “Every four years, you’re starting over with your customers,” Shaw said.
Tight margins. Prominent storefronts are costly, especially in hot areas of Charlotte. And there’s also the cost involved in toys and equipment that are attractive to families. “For the cost of what you have to pay to run a facility, with insurance, it’s kind of rough for owners,” said Jeannine Klos, who ran Kidz Play Here in Concord. The business shut down over the summer and the space has now converted to a geek culture game shop called The Mighty Meeple.
One of the keys is to keep costs down from the beginning, said Pam Shaw, who runs KidTime in Huntersville. “It can be tough to get started. There’s a lot of expenses, and the overhead can be a little overwhelming,” she said. “I learned early on to not always have to buy new, and to be frugal.” She said at this point, a lot of families will donate toys to KidTime.
Competition. Of course, babysitters are always an option. But other businesses are starting to offer more “parent nights out” or “mommy’s mornings out” that encroach on drop-in center business. The YMCA offers these regularly for their members and nonmembers, and other places like MyGym and LittleGym are doing them as well.
The need to be present. Parents really want to get to know the owner of the business and know who their children are staying with, Shaw said. That makes it a labor-intensive business. It’s not as easy as hiring a few college students and watching the money roll in. You’ll also need to keep an eye on traffic and come in and watch the children yourself to keep labor costs down if it’s a slow day.
Unbending city and county officials. Local government often doesn’t know how to classify these business and can impose costly requirements that don’t make sense.
Could drop-in childcare work in the Ballantyne area?
A few have tried and since closed. Precious Playtime was open for a few years in Ballantyne Commons East and Kids’ Klub was open a few years in the nearby Blakeney shopping center.
But current and former drop-in center owners identify it as the market where a drop-in center could most easily thrive in Charlotte. There’s an affluent customer base and plenty of retail centers like Stonecrest that would draw traffic.
“Many times, I’ve had customers ask, would I ever put a location down in the Ballantyne area,” said Shaw of KidTime in Huntersville.
She said some parents in south Charlotte will make the drive up to her location to leave their children. “I say, if i was younger I would, and healthier I would. … I think definitely in in the right spot, it could work.”
Here are the hourly drop-in child care locations in the Charlotte area
If we missed one, let us know and we’ll update: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Northcross Shopping Center
9715-D Sam Furr Road, Huntersville
21321 Catawba Avenue, Cornelius
Time Out For Parents
McEwen Shopping Center
11237-B Lawyers Rd Mint Hill
Hourly Kids Play
553 Indian Trail Rd S, Indian Trail
UPDATE: A new drop-in childcare center has just opened in the Ballantyne area. Here are the details.
Camfield Corners shopping center
8634-A Camfield Street, Charlotte