Anticipated benefits of a healthier population and economy were celebrated as more than 40 Walla Walla Valley leaders Thursday gathered to launch the area’s Blue Zones Project.

The nationwide project is based on research by Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, who identified five ‘hot spots’ with the highest amount of people living to 100 years or older worldwide.

The project incorporates Buettner’s findings and works with cities, organizations and individuals to implement policies and programs that move a community toward better health, according to background information provided by the project.

Albert Lea, a town of about 18,000 people in Minnesota, hosted the first project, starting a pilot program in 2009 and becoming certified as a Blue Zones community in 2016. It saw a 40% drop in city worker healthcare costs, a 25% increase in property values and a 40% increase in biking and walking, according to Blue Zones.

The project is credited for adding three years of life expectancy and a climbing overall health ranking in the surrounding Freeborn County.

Local implementation

In Walla Walla County, former Department of Community Health Director Meghan DeBolt will implement the first Blue Zones Project in Washington. It will bring together various community sectors involved in education, nonprofit organizations and policy-making.

Adventist Health will be the primary sponsor, bearing 50% of the cost, DeBolt said.

In January focus groups and one-on-one key stakeholder interviews will be held get input on what each would like see happen as well as what’s working, DeBolt said.

City Manager Nabiel Shawa in a speech Thursday said the project already aligns with many city initiatives such as the Neighborhood Engagement Program that promotes social well-being through neighborhood activities.

The city also promotes non-motorized transportation by adding more bike lanes and other ways to make it easier for the community to be more active, something Blue Zones also encourages.

The project’s seeds locally were planted in a October 2018 presentation to the community. Walla Walla went through a pre-qualification, the key element being that there are multiple community leaders that could partner to do the work.

“We need city leadership, community leadership, business leadership, healthcare, and public health leadership in order to do this,” said Ben Leedle, president and CEO of Blue Zones LLC.

With continued interest the cities of Walla Walla and College Place each contributed $10,000, as did Walla Walla County, Walla Walla University and Providence St. Mary’s Medical Center, to assess whether the community would be a good fit.

A scoring process indicated pursuing a Blue Zones Project would create a meaningful economic impact in the Walla Walla Valley, Leedle said.

Starting the project, which normally takes a year, was delayed by the continuing pandemic raging most of this year but will soon begin, Leedle said.

Steps to certification

A survey will be mailed to residents in January and February and results will be used to create a strategic plan in April. A steering committee of key community leaders will help the project team create the plan, project leaders said.

By May, the local team and its partners will begin implementing programming over the next three years, DeBolt said.

The project’s aim is to lay a baseline for community infrastructure and training. When the project ends and the city is certified as a Blue Zones community, it can still be expanded naturally, Leedle said.

In most Blue Zones communities, DeBolt said health systems, insurance companies, and employers have been sponsors who can economically benefit with a healthier community.

“We need just a higher baseline of health within our community, so we don’t need as much healthcare,” she said.

Successful projects see a reduction in medical costs and increased workforce productivity and well-being. As they improve other things follow, such as increased real estate values and a stronger overall regional economy, Leedle said.

Cost question

So far, 56 U.S. communities in the U.S. have Blue Zones projects. There are, however, no guarantees that once a project starts or a community receives a Blue Zones certification that it will continue.

Even before the pandemic, for example, Marion, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, in Iowa dropped out of the project, finding it too expensive, according to an article in The Gazette from 2018.

“Cost was a factor as we would have to pay to continue to use the brand and tap into their Blue Zones network,” Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin was quoted in the article.

The Iowa cities didn’t view the Blue Zones experiment as a waste, however, but rather the inspiration for new programs and a philosophical shift, the article stated. Iowa City, for example, incorporated Blue Zones principles into its bike and parks master plans.

DeBolt, who recently gave the Walla Walla City Council an overview of the organization, fielded comments.

“Often, I think we focus a lot on GDP and economic growth and sort of productivity over all things, and I am encouraged to see people focusing on health and happiness,” Council member Riley Clubb said.

But he addressed a concern he said many residents were faced with: Is this endeavor going to cost them, through city funds?

DeBolt said the team would seek time from the city to serve on the steering committee and help guide and lead the work, but not necessarily ask the city for a specific sum of money.

She said the city would work with project as a partner and not an investor, though it could allocate money for the project if it chooses to.

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.