Cold Springs Elementary school has stood empty after being replaced by the new Jeanette Rankin School, but it will soon hear the sound of children once again as a new child care facility.

The Missoula Early Learning Center has signed a long-term lease for the school, according to co-owner Mark Roberts, who spoke with KGVO News on Friday.

“About 18 months ago, the Chamber of Commerce identified child care as the second largest expense for families in Missoula,” said Roberts. “With the unemployment rate so low they were trying to tap back into a work force that was staying home. They reached out to me and other child care providers in addressing this. We’re about to celebrate our third year and we were ready to expand. Our waiting list, like everyone else’s, is long.”

Roberts explained what led his to consider the Cold Springs School.

“The Chamber and Kim Latrielle reached out to (MCPS Superintendent) Mark Thane about Cold Springs being a possibility,” he said. “A tenant for that facility fell through, so we came to the table, attended school board meetings and told our story of how Cold Springs would be a great spot to open up a facility. So, it’s been about 18 months in the works.”

Roberts said the Learning Center will lease approximately 65 percent of the facility.

“It is 14 classrooms that we’ll be renovating,” he said. “To comply with child care licensing rules, we’ll be adding exterior doors to every classroom, redoing the ceilings and floors, putting bathrooms in all the classrooms. We will also be leasing the gymnasium space, remodeling the kitchen and expanding the library.”

The number of children to be cared for at the new center will give some hope to the many parents looking for professional child care in Missoula.

“We’ll be licensed for about 192 children,” he said. “Right now we take care of 70 kids at our present location, so we hope to open about 120 spaces hopefully in the fall. We also hope to start an after school program because Cold Springs still operates as a bus drop-off and pick-up location for Jeanette Rankin and Chief Charlo and we’re estimating about 40 kids in the after school program.”

Roberts said he hopes to offer care for more infants, as well.

“Missoula is in desperate need of infant care,” he said. “We were going through our waiting list and 70 percent of the kiddos on our waiting list are under the age of two, so there’s a giant need for that. We’ll be expanding from our current 20 infants up to 48, but after looking at the need, we might change around our classrooms and go to 60 infants all broken up into group sizes of 12 kids.”

Roberts said the budget for renovation and improvements will exceed one million dollars.

“Right now, our renovation budget is $1.1 million which will all be privately funded. We’re not asking for any grant money or state funds,” he said. “We hope to start with hammers and nails in February and eventually open up in the fall.”

They plan to have a staff of nearly 55 employees and child care workers.