Chip Johnson has championed some major changes in Hernando, Mississippi, during his three terms as mayor. Before taking office in 2005, his town was often identified as one with embarrassingly high obesity rates in a state renowned for its overweight population. But, in 2010, Johnson helped to reverse that perception as Hernando was dubbed the “Healthiest Hometown” by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi Foundation. The accolade is reserved for one city in the state that is determined to be doing the most to promote a culture of health through sustainable policy changes. That same year, he was one of only two mayors in the country selected to help First Lady Michelle Obama kick off her Let’s Move! campaign to reduce childhood obesity. Adding to his health and wellness bonafides, Johnson is a board member of Bike Walk Mississippi, the state’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory group, and he has presided over several related citywide initiatives, including supporting sidewalks, signage and the Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School programs. We were able to coax Johnson off his bicycle long enough to learn more about what health and wellness in Hernando looks like these days.
Parks & Recreation Magazine: In 2006, you decided Hernando needed a park and recreation department. What factors influenced your decision? How have your measured your city’s return on this investment?
Mayor Chip Johnson: The citizens of Hernando told me that they wanted a parks and rec department when I was serving as alderman from 2001-2005. When I ran for mayor in 2005, I listened to the voters and made the parks and rec department a major piece of my platform.
P&R: What lessons learned or advice would you have for other mayors or city leaders interested in creating a parks department?
Mayor Johnson: My advice is to just get started on something today. If you wait for all of the stars to align perfectly, you will never start a parks department. You will find that as you finish one portion of the department, a new need will move to the forefront, and before you know it, you will have a full-fledged parks and rec department.
P&R: What other policies have you and your council implemented that have allowed Hernando to lead in promoting healthy, active living?
Mayor Johnson: We have enacted a Complete Streets policy in Hernando. We also work very closely with our school district on joint-use agreements. If we weren’t able to use the school gyms, there would not be a Hernando basketball league. We were also the seventh city in the state to become comprehensively smoke-free in 2007. The Board [of Aldermen] has also enacted a policy that allows our employees to be paid for four hours while they go to the doctor for their annual wellness visit, which does not even cost them a copay.
P&R: I loved your quote, “It’s my job to create an atmosphere and an opportunity for good health. If you want to take advantage of it, that’s great; if you want to stay at home on your couch, go ahead.” Does it seem as though your constituents have taken advantage of this opportunity?
Mayor Johnson: We have found that as we build or repair sidewalks and stripe new bike lanes, people immediately start taking advantage of the opportunity to safely exercise.
P&R: Quality of life means a lot of different things to different people, but in Hernando, it seems that creating the infrastructure to foster healthy active living is a key determinant of quality of life. In your region, residents and businesses are voting with their feet and seeking out Hernando to live, work and play. Is the broader business community in your region taking notes from Hernando? Have you seen “peer cities” adopting similar “livability” strategies?
Mayor Johnson: We have just had a major business from Germany expand into Hernando with very few incentives. We are finding that creating a high quality of life, with health and wellness as a cornerstone, will attract business leaders who understand that a healthy workforce is more desirable than monetary incentives.
P&R: Many elected officials question the role of the government in providing support for infrastructure, like parks, trails and streetscape improvements. In your experience, what is the proper role of government at all levels in creating this infrastructure, and what role can the private sector play in creating this type of infrastructure?
Mayor Johnson: I think that the role of local government is to facilitate whatever the majority of the people in the city decide that they want to fund with their tax dollars. The people will let you know very quickly if they think you are spending their hard-earned money unwisely on things that they don’t want. I am very firm in my belief that the government should never get involved in dictating your personal health choices. However, if you decide that you want to be healthier, we should provide you an atmosphere and an opportunity to make the healthy choice.
We also posed a few questions to Dewayne Williams, CPRP, who serves as director of Hernando Parks and Recreation.
P&R: We are impressed by your H.E.A.L. program; tell our readers a bit more about this initiative.
Dewayne Williams: The Healthy Eating Active Living Program was created because I realized my inside numbers were not good. I looked healthy outwardly but inwardly I was not well. I thought, “How can we bring awareness to people about the importance of knowing their numbers?” We don’t want to just celebrate a person for losing weight — we want to promote and celebrate overall wellness.
We get instructors from local gyms and the community to lead classes. If a person connects with an instructor, they are more likely to enroll in that particular gym so they can continue their wellness journey. We also have the local hospital and others to educate us about healthy living. One of the best byproducts of the H.E.A.L. program is the relationships that are created. People become friends and inspiration for each other, come out of their shell and share in the wellness journey.
P&R: What should other park and recreation directors take away from the Hernando experience in helping to create a culture of health in their communities?
Williams: Parks directors should see parks and recreation as a leader in combating obesity. We connect with entire families so we have opportunities to impact children, their parents and other relatives. A culture of health goes beyond children, race and economic status, so there is an opportunity to connect and provide essential services to a diverse population.
Lastly, your community will see you as a person who cares about them.
P&R: As a park director in a relatively new department, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Williams: I started Hernando Parks just eight years ago, and we have grown from zero programs to 23 programs with only three staff members. We went from 25 acres of park land to almost 140 acres of park land with only three maintenance men. All of this with a total budget of approximately $666,000. We have just over 28 percent of our population participating in our programs. I am most proud of us providing essential services with diverse programs, serving diverse groups of people, being financially responsible and improving the community’s quality of life.
Kevin O’Hara is NRPA’s Vice President of Urban and Government Affairs.