Operators of Howard's 69 day-care centers, most of whom turn away children in diapers, say they may have to roll up their sleeves and start changing to compete with eight new centers that have nearly saturated the market in the county.

In the year that ended April 30, newcenters and expansions added 606 day-care slots in Howard County to make room for a total of 3,443 children, according to the state ChildCare Administration.

Until now, many parents had to struggle to place a child in one of the relatively few day-care slots. Infant care in such centers was rare, leaving sitters in private homes as the only option for parentswith very young children.

But the sudden increase in day-care services means many centers face vacancies, and a new concept in day care: competition.

A sure-fire way of filling those vacancies is to sign up young children, who might continue with the same center for several years.

"That's a sound, solid business strategy. Get them while they're young," said Jackie Allison, director of Young Care Inc. on Red Branch Road in the Oakland Ridge Industrial Center. She explained that it is much easier to get 18-month-olds, who most centers still won't take, than it is to get 2- or 3-year-olds.

And once parents are introduced to the center, chances are they will keep sending their child there after potty-training, she said. As for slots for children over age 2, she explained, "Instead of care being so scarce that they'll take anything, people are starting to shop around," and consequently fewer centers are turning up their noses at the diaper set.

"Two years ago, when we started, wewere told by licensing (authorities) that approximately 25 percent of the children that need care were getting care," Allison said.

In keeping with that assessment, the center's 63 slots filled up quickly, and soon every age group hadwaiting lists, she said. "They were beating down our doors. The onlything that stopped us was that I physically could not keep up with it."

Howard County's day-care center slots increased 21 percent during the 12 months ending April 30. Anne Arundel County saw a 25 percent increase, but all other neighboring counties saw increases smallerthan Howard's, with Carroll County's 17 percent leading the group.

Two Howard centers awaiting licensing, one offering some infant slots, could add more than 200 slots to the market by September.

Local day-care operators have yet to notice price competition, but one operator said her centers will forgo their annual 5 percent price increase this year. JoAnn Rynn, who owns the county's five Lornwood Child Development Centers with her sister, Lydia Lupino, said they thought an increase might be a problem in keeping up enrollment.

In addition to day-care centers, there are 696 licensed home day-care providers and hundreds of unlicensed providers.

The effects of the extra day-care space have started to show among established providers.

"It's been a lot slower than it has in the past," said Morris Cohen, owner of Child Care in Laurel. "Before we were pretty close to full or we had a small waiting list," while recently the center has had about10 vacancies out of 56 slots.

Dale Jackson, the county's day-carecoordinator, said one of the main factors inthe increase in slots isthat new centers, while few in number, tend to be much larger than older ones.

"People just aren't opening centers that are under 100 children any more. You can make more money if you have more children," she said, because overhead costs are reduced with higher volume.

Many of the newer day-care centers are being opened in office and industrial parks.

"It's become a very relevant amenity; much the same way that fitness centers became a trend in the '80s, I think day care will become more important in the '90s," said Olusola Seriki, a development director at Rouse Co., which controls development in Columbia.

One of the centers located in a business-park, Allison's YoungCare center, expanded from 63 to 121 slots Feb. 6 and does not have waiting lists in any age group except one: infants.

About 35 infants are on a waiting list for the center's 21 slots.

Young Care's second facility, in Kings Contrivance village, recently opened. It has12 infant slots. When Young Care first opened, there were no standard regulations for infant care.

"We were at the mercy of whoever wewere talking to at the moment because no one in Howard County had any regulations for infant care. All the power to license was in the counties."

State regulations adopted in April are clear on the amount of staffing required, the amount of space needed and other vital aspects of day care that were once left to interpretation by local authorities.

At LaPetite Child Care in Kings Contrivance, demand has prompted plans to provide six slots for infants as soon as the companygets licensing this summer. The

$180-a-week service is being started to meet area demand, center director Marilyn Watt said.

It is likely the demand for infant care will continue to increase because of the current mini-baby boom, projected to boost Howard County's under-4 population from last year's 15,200 to 16,300 in 1995, according to the projections by the state Office of Planning.

LaPetite, a Kansas City, Mo.-based chain, added to the county's total day-care capacity April 22 by opening a center in the Columbia 100 Office Research Park. The center is licensed for 32 children, but has a capacity of 100.

That center might be in line for infant care, too, if the Kings Contrivance service catches on, said Kim Doxzen, LaPetite's Ellicott City director.

Child Care's Cohen said he would like to offer infant care, but "economically it's just not feasible."

Infant care requires at least twice as many staff members. The state requires a 1-to-3 provider-to-infant ratio, compared with the 1-6 ratio required for 2-year-olds and the 1-10 ratio for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Rynn said providing infant care will help the new Dorsey location's competitive position.

But the idea originated with the fact that Rynn's daughter, Robin, wanted to have a baby of her own and manage the new center.

The center cares for six infants and charges $140 a week, compared with the $85 fee for 2-year-olds and $80 for 3- to 5-year-olds.

At the Lornwood in Bryant Woods in Wilde Lake village, Rynn said she plans to introduce infant care for six infants -- and she too is not doing it for purely market-driven reasons.

"I'm doing it because I'm old enough to be a grammy and I just love it," she said.

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