Danielle Stewart for Mayor of Beckley

Position Paper #3: Healthy Activities


“Health happens in neighborhoods.” — Dr. David Erickson, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health during a talk on shifting the focus from medical care to upstream social determinants of health.


We have heard it all over the media: These are the least healthy cities in America (taken from a USA Today article from 2016).

1. Beckley, W.V.

  • Premature death rate: 553.4 per 100,000

  • Adult obesity rate: 34.5%

  • Pct. adults without health insurance: 9.6%

  • Poverty rate: 18.6%


"A large share of Beckley residents are relatively poor and lack access to resources necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The typical household in the area makes just $38,606 a year, and only 47.2% of residents have adequate access to opportunities for physical activity, each some of the lowest figures in the country.  The city’s 22.9% smoking rate, 34.5% obesity rate, and 34.5% inactivity rate are also among the highest of any metro area. Beckley also leads the country in injury deaths, a leading cause of which is drug overdose. For every 100,000 metro area residents, 121 die of an injury, more than twice the national rate. Also, 553 Beckley residents per 100,000 die prematurely before age 75, the highest premature death rate in the country."  Click HERE for the full article.

Part of the problem is demographic – if you look at the “Healthiest” cities, almost all of them are large college towns with a young population.  Beckley lost almost 4,000 residents since 1980, most of them are people that were younger and healthier.  WVU Tech’s relocation to Beckley will improve our statistics, but it only masks the underlying problems. 


Part of the problem is geographic – We have three major hospitals and we are the center of health care in southern West Virginia.  People who are sick tend to live near where they can receive health care.  While this fact will always hurt our ranking, having healthcare available to our residents is a luxury for rural cities.  Every year more hospitals close because of population loss and we are lucky to have three hospitals and the associated clinics.


Part of the problem is culture and attitude – people choosing unhealthy foods, smoking, alcohol use, or simply don’t want to exercise.


What is the role of city government to address these problems?  Clearly, we cannot fix our geography, we are where we are.  We can recruit younger and healthier people to live here but again that just masks the issues.  Our community culture and attitudes can absolutely change, and our city government has a role in making that happen.


Active Southern West Virginia (Active SWV-click HERE for their website), funded through the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, is a great but underutilized resource in our community.  They host free activities throughout the area including bike rides, guided hikes, and exercise programs like REFIT®, tai chi, and yoga.  I will work with Active SWV to create more FREE opportunities by providing them funding to create more activities as well as free access to city parks and facilities in which to host activities.  We will double down on their efforts to encourage people to get out and exercise. (Note: I have not coordinated with Active SWV on this proposal but I have worked with them before and I believe they would be willing to support the endeavor.)


I will create walkable neighborhoods (click HERE for more information) so our residents feel safe from speeding cars.  This will involve reducing the speed limit in some neighborhoods to 15 mph and more strict enforcement in neighborhoods where the speed limit is already 15 mph.  I will install signs highlighting routes and roads.  I will improve lighting on the designated routes so people can see and feel safe to walk. I will connect neighborhoods with designated crossing areas so our residents can safely cross busy roads and intersections.  Lastly, I will work to educate our residents on their walkable neighborhoods and encourage residents of those neighborhoods to walk together.  I will talk more about walkable neighborhoods later in the campaign.


The reality of our weather here in Beckley means we cannot always exercise outdoors and the indoor spaces we do have are old and need significant renovations.  We are fortunate to have the YMCA of Southern West Virginia, numerous gyms, and other fitness facilities in our area. However, a large portion of our residents simply cannot afford even the modest fees some of these facilities charge.  I will find funding to renovate the Maxwell Hill Community Center and I will transition that facility from a place to hold parties to a place where people can meet and exercise for free.  I will actively look for places and funding to create additional community centers with a goal of one community center in each ward.  I will work to add additional infrastructure like paved trails, exercise equipment, and shelters to our existing neighborhood parks so that our community parks can be the center of healthy activities when the weather is nice.


Projected one-time costs: $4,650,000 (not all in one year)

Refurbish Maxwell Hill Community Center: $500,000

Walkable Neighborhoods: $50,000

Neighborhood Park Upgrades: $100,000

4 additional Community Centers: $4,000,000

We will pay for Walkable Neighborhoods and the Neighborhood Park Upgrades using city contingency funds (currently $2.4 million year year).  We will seek grant funding for the additional community centers and Maxwell Hill Community Center Renovations.


Projected Annual Cost: $35,000

Direct Support for Active SWV: $25,000

Walkable Neighborhoods Maintenance: $10,000


We will use city contingency funds and budget reallocation to maintain these programs.


Unknown Costs: $0 (though I recognize there are always things that popup in any plan)


I cannot completely change the culture and attitudes about health in our community – no mayor or anyone else can either.  What I can do as mayor is ensure the city is providing resources, activities, and facilities so that all residents have equal opportunities to take care of themselves. 


“The roots of poor health and poverty are the same. By joining forces, community development and health can have even more impact in the low-income communities they serve.” — Colby Dailey, Build Healthy Places Network, at the Grantmakers In Health meeting on measuring the impact of community investments.