Posted By: Michael Booth

Part of the work that LiveWell Colorado does is to help municipal leaders around the state adopt policies and make investments in the built environment to foster healthier eating and more physical activity among residents and employees.

La Junta, a small community in Southeast Colorado, is one of the members of our HEAL Cities and Towns Campaign, and its impactful story is below.

One town’s sandy, neglected arroyo is another innovative town’s fitness gold mine.

Anderson Arroyo winds unobtrusively through this town of 7,500 people, scorched and dusty in August, slick and treacherous in April, and occasionally choked with weeds or trash after a June cloudburst the old ranch hands in the area would have called a “gully-washer.”

But where urban redevelopers of the past would have seen a nuisance, La Junta City Manager Rick Klein sees a beckoning opportunity for getting town-folk moving again outdoors. Klein, along with another city leader who likes to join him at “Spartan” challenge races, conceived of an organized “mud run” along the arroyo a few years ago. The event quickly became a hit with local wannabe athletes, Front Range runners looking for a new challenge, and economic development fans eager to attract tourists with spending money. From 114 registrants the first year, the La Junta ‘Mudsport’ grew to 300 in the second year, on its way to a potential 500 this year.

The fitness event not only reintroduced townspeople to a forgotten but potentially vital open space asset. It also focused city government on finding new sources of money to preserve and upgrade the winding waterways through town. And it shone a spotlight on key sections of a Healthy Eating and Active Living Campaign officially voted into the town government’s long-term agenda in 2014.

LiveWell Colorado’s HEAL Cities & Towns Campaign, a partnership with the Colorado Municipal League, aims to magnify the impact of obesity-fighting efforts through local policy changes. La Junta’s City Council brought the city into the HEAL Campaign with its resolution calling for a redoubling of efforts to create an active community, and far better access to good food.

La Junta’s resolution also explicitly pledged to start the hard work in an area where it had meaningful influence — with its own city employees. Municipalities are often one of the largest employers in rural Colorado, and efforts from employee wellness programs to healthy meeting foods and walking challenges can start the influential core of a town in the right direction.

Dawn Block has taken that to heart, literally at the La Junta Senior Center. On the wall of the center’s big recreation room is a “walking trail” stretching a figurative 369 miles between La Junta and Grand Junction. A group of residents wear pedometers everywhere and meet three times a week for walking-talking sessions, in the winter making circles inside the warm senior center rec room. In the current 12-week session, many of the employees will walk the distance to Grand Junction.

Walkers get a T-shirt when they “reach” Blue Mesa Reservoir. The first five to “reach” Grand Junction get a mani-pedi, or a massage.

sport shoes walking close-up

“I realize we’re not going to change the culture completely, but we’re trying,” said Block. “We grew up on farms, where we were moving all the time. City people have access to a lot of unhealthy foods, and they don’t move around very much.”

The walking culture has taken hold among city employees and the larger community. Of 140 city workers, 58 percent are participating in the wellness program. The walking challenges started with 25 and this winter reached 58 people. When city employees and other walkers run across each other, they hold up their pedometers and compare numbers like partygoers clinking champagne glasses. “As a cancer survivor,” Block said, “Walking is very important to me. Anyone can walk.”

La Junta has put out a walkability survey, asking residents where they walk and why, and also where they don’t walk and why, looking for barriers that can be overcome. Do your kids not walk to school because of a bad sidewalk or a scary dog? Does your grandmother not walk to the grocery store because of a dangerous street crossing? Identifying the problem can lead to a policy solution.

Town leaders are most excited about a grant for a trails master plan for the area. Potential connections are many — the Arkansas River rolls on the north edge of town, and the arroyos make natural paths to the riverwalk. To the northeast, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site draws national visitors to quiet meadows and marshes thick with birds. The regular stop of an Amtrak passenger train creates the need and the opportunity for 15-minute walking loops linking passengers to city commerce.

The city is eager to make its wellness program more formal and sustainable. At the moment, those signing up for wellness receive four hours’ paid time off. More incentives could help, Block suggested. Say, if they agreed to at least three of five elements of a wellness program, they might receive a health insurance price break, or a pre-loaded gasoline or Wal-Mart card. With more formal records of wellness program success, the city’s self-funded insurance plan might also find future savings of taxpayer dollars.

A next-level goal for La Junta may draw on the statewide expertise of LiveWell Colorado’s Denver office, and connections available through the Colorado Municipal League. City Manager Klein has long had an eye on certain blocks for new parks open space and trail easements, to further the active-living goals embodied by the Campaign. LiveWell’s work with groups like Great Outdoors Colorado and other resources can help make connections that magnify the policy power of local government.

Klein has learned lessons along the way that could send important signals to other Colorado communities. He and others worked on a trails concept in the late 1990s, but he feels he made the mistake of going to property owners first before building citywide public support. Opposition among property owners quickly killed the idea, with no groundswell of public opinion to rescue the plan. Klein and other city leaders are now thinking far more creatively about how to combine cleanup and trail-building on the arroyos with flood mitigation needs.

And every mud-runner who enjoys the town’s big fitness event becomes another ambassador for change.

Back at the Senior Center, Dawn Block looks at the stick-figures of city employees on the wall who are “walking to Grand Junction.”

“If we can do it, anybody can do it,” she said.