In Lima, OH, located in Allen County, community leaders are discovering the economic benefits of building a healthy, attractive community for residents to live, learn, work and play.
In the 2012 County Health Rankings, Allen County ranked 75 out of 88 counties, according to health factors, with high rates of obesity (37 percent) and adult smoking (22 percent). Selected by the YMCA of the USA for a Pioneering Healthier Communities grant through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2010, health, business, education, religious, and civic leaders in Allen County are working hard to improve health through policy, systems and environmental changes that promote healthy eating, active living, and tobacco-free lifestyles.
Members of Activate Allen County, as the initiative is called, credit the group’s early success to the diversity of its membership and a common driver: economic development.
“If you want to be a successful community economically, you have to have a healthy and educated work force,” said Jerry Courtney, president of the Lima Family YMCA and co-convener of Activate Allen County.
Using data from the County Health Rankings and other sources, Courtney and his colleagues have begun to build a business case to persuade local residents, businesses and government agencies of the importance of health-centered urban development.
The group’s first policy success was convincing the Lima-Allen County Planning Commission to require developers to build planned sidewalks in newly-completed residential developments, in order to promote active living and enhance neighborhood connectedness. In addition, the Allen Economic Development Group recently adopted the health goals and strategies of Activate Allen County as part of their strategic plan for economic development.
But there’s still more work to be done. In a recent presentation to 45 small businesses at the Chamber of Commerce, Courtney illustrated the connection between the county’s high level of obesity, chronic disease and healthcare costs—a large, and growing, economic burden on the community.
“We reference the County Heath Rankings in every presentation we do, because it sets the stage for the discussion,” Courtney said. “We’ve got to get people’s attention. People understand we’re in a competitive world and that companies relocate to where people are healthy and educated. Once we have their attention, we introduce the evidence-based programs that focus our work.”
Currently, Activate Allen County is engaged with 21 local businesses, helping them to improve their workplace wellness. The group gives each business a free assessment of things like healthy vending options, walkability and bikeability, and whether it is really tobacco-free and breastfeeding-friendly; then provides recommendations and resources for improvement. Soon, Activate Allen County hopes to develop a special designation that businesses, including hospitals, can earn for supporting breastfeeding mothers.
In recognition and encouragement of these early efforts, Activate Allen County was one of just 40 community groups nationwide to receive a Community Transformation Grant from CDC last year. Part of that $1.2 million award will be used to enhance its business case for health and to further engage the local business community.
“Do we have problems?” Courtney asked. “Yes. But when we pull together we can compete with any county in the country. You gotta believe.”
Learn more about Active Allen County on YouTube.