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Northern Hills Childcare has Norfolk parents talking, and their kids excited

The squeals of little voices still echo throughout the halls from the rooms of this former elementary school in Norfolk, thanks to help from an SBA guaranteed loan.

Northern Hills Childcare, which opened in September 2012, offers busy parents an inviting place for their children to run, play and learn.  

“The space is great,” owner Liz Sudbeck said.  “We love having enough room for letting the kids run and play.”

For the kids, there are age- and developmentally-appropriate playgrounds, lively-colored classrooms with large windows and plenty of activity areas, a gymnasium, and a calendar packed with field trips and preschool programs. For parents, there’s the assurance that the electronic security and staff members trained in first aid and CPR will keep their kids safe, with parking just steps from the front door.  

With two big 15-passenger vans, Northern Hills Childcare transports kids to about eight different schools in the area, offering before-school and after-school programs.  “We help them with their homework, and also have a library,” she added.

Liz Sudbeck and her daughter, Harper, inside a classroom at Northern Hills Childcare

Liz Sudbeck her and daughter, Harper, inside one of the classrooms at Northern Hills Childcare

“I’ve always enjoyed being around kids, it’s what I went to school for,” said Sudbeck, who holds a degree from Wayne State in early childhood education, and worked at a day care center in town before deciding to start her own business.

Due to consolidation, the elementary school closed for good as the year ended in the spring of 2011.  The city immediately started looking for a buyer for the building, and its 12 classrooms, gym, lunchroom, library and offices.  At the same time, Sudbeck made the decision with her husband to go into the day care business on their own.

Turning to the SBA to get the deal done

Sudbeck made an appointment with Russ Wilcox, senior vice president at Midwest Bank, seeking financing to purchase the former elementary school on North 12th St.  But Wilcox recommended the couple first sit down with Loren Kucera at the Nebraska Business Development Center to put together a solid business plan with financial projections.

“The thing we worked on the most with him was figuring out how many kids it was going to take to make things work,” Sudbeck said, “which was really difficult because we didn't know how many ages those kids would be, and how long they would be here each day.”

Sudbeck figured they could take as many as 50 children to start, and armed with her business plan, she appeared before the Norfolk Planning Commission to get a permit to turn the closed school into her new business.  The commission liked her idea of a day care, and pushed through a re-zoning plan to turn the old school into a new business.

“There are a couple of small day care centers in town through local churches, and we have a lot of in-home private care,” Wilcox said.  “But nothing like this, not a for-profit center of this size.”

With interim financing from Midwest Bank in place, work began to turn classrooms into playrooms, and to improve the kitchen.  Then the place needed to be filled with chairs, changing tables, cribs and toys.  Most of the stuff came surplus from area schools, saving the new business a lot of money. A new play area on the grounds is for tykes while an existing playground across the street will be moved to the grounds in the spring for older kids.  

Northern Hills Childcare was approved Dec. 21, 2012 for an SBA 7(a) guaranteed loan to pay off the interim loan, and to offer the business permanent working capital for expenses.

To help market the new business, Northern Hills Childcare sponsored radio and newspaper ads, but an open house both before and after their official grand opening drew likes on their Facebook page.  They’re also partnering with nearby Norfolk Iron and Metal to provide day care for the children of their employees, and are reaching out to other area businesses for similar arrangements.

“I’ve been impressed with what they’ve been able to accomplish at this point,” Wilcox said. So are nearby homeowners.

Getting plenty of support with the new business

“I think we've had a lot of support from people around here,” she said.  “All of the neighbors have come by and expressed how glad they are to have a day care in this part of town.”

Even better:  the new business already has created almost two dozen jobs in this city of 24,000.

Opening her own small business was “very scary,” Sudbeck admitted, but she added she was fortunate to get support from the community and her family.  In fact, when he’s not busy working with his father’s underground boring business, Sudbeck’s husband also helps run the center. 

“I've had people come through to see the day care that have talked about how they always wanted to do it themselves but haven't had the opportunity or take the risk,” she said.

Wilcox added. “You look at these kids who come in here; these kids are running around in a full sized gym in the middle of winter, instead of in front of a TV.  You add in the playground equipment, it’s a very popular place for the kids because it’s so unique. There’s a tremendous wow factor here.”