Morgantown, WVU look to secure investment for Blue Zone designation

MORGANTOWN — Representatives from the City of Morgantown and WVU plan to meet with potential investors next month as part of the effort to become the first city/university to jointly earn the Blue Zone health and wellness designation.
The Blue Zones Project is a for-profit entity that grew from an extensive research effort to identify the world’s healthiest and longest lived populations and copy their success in other communities.
Five original Blue Zones were identified: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, Calif.; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica. In the years since, dozens of communities have achieved the Blue Zone title.
For Morgantown and WVU to join that list, it will likely take about $14 million in private investment according to Colleen Harshbarger, of Wellbeing Solutions.
Harshbarger is under contract as the city’s consultant in the Blue Zone effort. She updated Morgantown City Council during its recent committee of the whole meeting.
She explained that funding for such projects is traditionally provided by insurance companies and large employers, both of whom have a financial interest in keeping people healthy.
“They have never had any municipality fund a project,” she said, adding “The whole model of health care is sort of in this paradigm shift, understanding we’re not going to treat ourselves out of the high cost of care for preventable diseases. So, they certainly stand to gain if we find a way to flip that around.”
Representatives from the project first made their pitch to Morgantown last August. A short time later, WVU put up $250,000 for an involved assessment process that included more than 50 local organizations, 70 focus group participants and 150 presentations.
“I’ve been in the wellness profession all of my adult career. I have to say this is the most galvanizing project I’ve ever been involved in,” Harshbarger said.
The assessment process took a deep dive into many of the factors that impact health in the Greater Morgantown Area, including local alcohol policies, built environment systems, financial well-being, food policies, physical activity and tobacco use.
While Morgantown fares somewhat better than the rest of West Virginia, that’s not exactly a high hurdle. The Mountain State has ranked 50th in overall well-being for a decade running according to the Gallup Sharecare Well-being Index.
The Blue Zone effort is not cheap, but it’s far less expensive than the cost of doing nothing according to Harshbarger and the Blue Zones Project, which put the 10-year value of participation at $97 million for the city based on a simulation model using community metrics focused around medical costs, productivity and regional economic impact.
Should the funding be secured and the project go forward, it will trigger an eight-month effort to tailor what the local project will look like, followed by a four-year transformation and certification phase.
It will also result in the hiring of seven local full-time project coordinators to be shared between the city and WVU, as well as the formation of a shared steering committee and leadership structure. Additionally, the Blue Zones Project would commit personnel locally and provide access to its global experts and resources.
According to City Manager Paul Brake, Harshbarger has been paid $20,000 thus far for her efforts.
“We are thrilled with the work that has been accomplished so far. This wouldn’t  have been possible without Colleen’s hard work and dedication,” Brake said.
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