Erie County Council on Tuesday voted to give the Blue Zones Project in Corry a lifeline.
In a unanimous vote, council agreed to move $4.3 million in leftover federal funds from 2021 into the 2022 budget. The funds stem from the $52 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated to the county and include $375,000 for the Blue Zones Project.
If accessed by the Corry program, the funds would allow the community-led initiative, which began in 2019 as a pilot project, to continue for another year and perhaps longer if more funding is acquired.
But first, the $375,000 must be un-restricted by council.
Unlocking the funds
Last year, County Council earmarked the $375,000 specifically for the expansion of the Blue Zones Project throughout the county.
The funds were restricted until the program acquired sufficient buy-in from community partners in other municipalities and Erie’s urban core.
To date, this has proved unsuccessful.
Since funding for the Blue Zones pilot project in Corry is running short, leaders of the project have requested that council un-restrict the $375,000 to allow their progress in Corry to continue.
“The Blue Zones Project creates a thriving community where people want to live, work and play,” said Shannon Wohlford, Corry Blue Zones project leader. “A thriving community attracts new businesses and helps build a healthy workforce, which is foundational to securing future jobs. And overall, we know when people feel better, they do better.”
The pilot project is funded primarily through donations by three health care systems — UPMC, Highmark and LECOM Health’s Corry Memorial Hospital. Each provided the project roughly $1 million in 2019. The money is expected to run out by April.
Councilwoman Mary Rennie told the Erie Times-News on Wednesday that she was open to un-restricting the $375,000 for the Corry project.
“People are one of the biggest resources that we have in Erie County, so we need to invest in people,” said Rennie, D-3rd Dist. “Their health and development and well-being counts a lot with any business, whether we grow it ourselves or whether a business relocates to the area.”
Rennie said the matter will likely be discussed at the council’s next finance meeting on March 10.
Wohlford said Tuesday’s vote to move the $375,000 into the 2022 budget gives her hope. If the funds are unrestricted, they will give the Corry project more time to access other sources of funding and potentially expand, she said.
“The bigger goal is not only sustainability for Corry but to look at the potential for expansion in the broader community,” Wohlford said. “That includes possible schoolwide expansion, which could impact every student.”
The Blue Zones Project aims to help people make healthier choices through permanent changes to Corry’s environment, policy and social networks.
Blue Zones not a priority for Davis
Since taking office in January, Erie County Executive Brenton Davis has shown little interest in continuing or growing the Blue Zones initiative.
In a recent budget proposal shown to council, Davis proposed to reallocate the $375,000 in restricted funds toward the creation of a fusion center, a networking center that would seek out grant funding opportunities for the county.
Davis seeks to re-budget: Davis seeks to re-budget Erie County’s 2022 American Rescue Plan funds
In a recent interview with the Erie Times-News, county Director of Administration Doug Smith said Davis didn’t consider Blue Zones a priority.
“We know that was something Ms. (Kathy) Dahlkemper and her administration favored, but we don’t feel that’s much of a priority and gives us as much of a return as we like to see,” Smith said.
Leaders of the Corry project shared a different view Tuesday, insisting Corry has thrived since becoming the 47th Blue Zones community, even as it has battled the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve seen a return on investment of almost 3 to 1 in under three years of work,” said Ashley Lawson with Blue Zones Project in Corry.
“We’ve implemented over a dozen policies to improve the built environment; reduce tobacco usage and increase access to healthy foodAs a result of our work, we’ve saved businesses in the region over $4 million in their health care and workforce productivity budgets.”
The city has also seen a 16.1% increase in well-being, according to project leaders.
The Blue Zones Project in Corry uses data from a wellness platform developed in part by the Boston University School of Public Health. The platform determines the wellness index of any location by measuring several factors like economic security, food access, health care access, housing and transportation.
“I think we walked away from the meeting feeling very hopeful,” Wohlford said. “We didn’t want to go down without a fight, a fight for the Corry community.”