By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
NEVADA, Mo. —
Every day that the weather allows, 77-year-old Barbara Weakley drives to Izaak Walton Park and walks at least three miles.
Last year, she logged 1,005 miles.
“I started when my husband was ill, because I needed a mental release,” she said.
That was in 2006.
“I enjoyed it so much, I’m still going,” she said.
Weakley said she believes it’s up to individuals to stay healthy and active.
“People need to get away from the TV and outside,” she said.
But for whatever reason, Weakley is among the minority of residents in Vernon County, where Nevada is the county seat. Of 115 counties in the state, Vernon County came in last year at 88th for its overall health. For mortality, it ranked 95th.
Perhaps most troubling to leaders in the county’s largest city of Nevada, population 8,500, is that the area was 104th in healthy behaviors.
The percentage of adults who smoke is more than twice the national benchmark. Adult obesity and physical inactivity are well above the statewide average.
In contrast, the city scored high marks in its desire to turn the numbers around, according to Erik Gallimore, the director of rural health operations at Cerner Corp., a Kansas City-based provider of electronic medical systems.
Last fall, the company selected Nevada to team up on building a new model of health. The goal of the private-public partnership is to determine whether a rural community that ranks so low on so many health indexes can improve its rankings, help doctors work more efficiently and cut health care costs.
“In five years, we want to go from the bottom third to the top third on the health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” said City Manager J.D. Kehrman.
Six months later, the city is making headway, Kehrman said. A healthy concessions plan called “Eat Smart in the Parks” and the resurrection of a farmers market are planned to kick off soon.
Work also will be complete next month on the creation of the Healthy Nevada Innovation Center on the third floor of the Nevada Public Library.
Cerner is investing $750,000 in it and will maintain a five-year lease, with an option to renew for another five. When the company’s work in Nevada is done, the city keeps the center, Gallimore said.
At 6,100 square feet, it will include a research area for grant writing, and a public use area for classes, presentations and demonstrations related to health. An open house and dedication ceremony is planned for early June.
And on Wednesday, a master plan for a proposed bicycle-pedestrian system was unveiled.
It was met with a warm reception.
“This will change the way we do business here in Nevada,” Kehrman said. “We are breaking ground for an area for which there was no road map.”
Representatives from the PedNet Coalition, a pedestrian and pedaling network in Columbia, created and presented the master plan for the bicycle-pedestrian system after a detailed and comprehensive evaluation of the city last fall. More than 70 residents assisted in the project.
“It gives me goose bumps to sit here and listen to it,” said Nevada native Steve Marquardt.
“It’s very exciting,” said Judy Feuquay, CEO of Nevada Regional Medical Center. “With the escalating costs of health care, it’s important that people take personal responsibility for their health. This would be one of the ways we could help that happen.”
PedNet representative Robert Johnson said the group’s assessment determined that potential exists in Nevada for $45.5 million worth of sidewalks, nearly $24 million worth of trails and $263,000 in on-street amenities — painted crosswalks, for example.
“That’s $70 million worth of infrastructure, and no one in this room is going to say ‘build that,’” Johnson said. The town does not have that kind of money.
In discussing priorities, the evaluation team settled on a $4 million figure “to offer Nevada the most bang for its buck,” Johnson said.
To establish priorities for the next five to 10 years, the team looked at developed areas, how many residents would get the maximum benefit, what options were most feasible, and which links between community amenities were most important.
“We asked ourselves, ‘If we did have $4 million, what would make the most sense?’” Johnson said.
What made the most sense were four possibilities: connecting Izaak Walton Park with the YMCA on West Highland Avenue via an attractive trail through an existing farm field; bike lanes on Atlantic Street; additional trees; and a Missouri Pacific Railroad trail south of town on an abandoned railroad bed.
The latter would provide Nevada with “a perfect opportunity — an incredible opportunity,” for a five-mile trail system, said Mike Snyder, a 13-year veteran of trail and park development in trail-laden Columbia. He also noted it would be inexpensive.
“You need a success to get this project started,” he said.
Similar grass-roots efforts are under way across the border in equally low-ranked Crawford County, Kan., where a recent audit of nonmotorized transportation possibilities in Girard and Pittsburg underscored the need for more.
And earlier this week, Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr announced that the Joplin trail system will be extended, with plans calling for construction of nearly 20 more miles connecting the south and central sections of the city to the north.
Former Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman, a longtime advocate of biking, hiking and walking who is credited with the development of the MKT and KATY trails in the 1970s and ’80s, came to Nevada on Wednesday to urge the city to adopt its own bicycle-pedestrian plan.
Those with disabilities, limited incomes and no cars, and the elderly need to be able to reach parks, grocery stores and schools, Hindman said. In Columbia, he saw such a system translate to residents who were healthier and happier, monetary savings to governments and employers, and economic development.
In Columbia, which now has 50 miles of trails along with bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly intersections and crosswalks, IBM brought in 800 high-paying jobs. Hindman said the company noted that the city’s bicycle-pedestrian system was a key reason for locating there.
“It will reduce government spending, transportation costs, health care costs, and wear and tear on streets,” he said of trail systems.
The next step is getting community feedback on the plan, Kehrman said.
“All along we knew this needed to be an initiative that the community had to buy into, and have the involvement of multiple agencies,” he said. “It has to be a community-up proposal and not a city-down proposal.”
By the numbers
ACCORDING TO STATISTICS provided by Darwin Hindman, about 720,000 people die per year — an average of about 2,000 per day — of health issues that are a direct result of lack of exercise. “Heart disease will exceed $1 trillion in health costs by 2020, half of which will be paid by Medicare, and that’s preventable with diet and exercise,” he said.