Hernando, MS Mayor Chip Johnson on turning our home towns into healthy towns

Court_House_Hernando_MSDeSoto County Courthouse in Hernando, MS. Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki via Wikimedia Commons.

Hernando, Mississippi has grown considerably in the past decade. With its good schools, historic town square, and small town charm it’s not hard to understand why. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find what may be a whole other set of reasons that more and more people are choosing to call Hernando home. At the center of it all is Mayor Chip Johnson and his mission to change the dialogue on health in the state with the highest obesity rate in the country.

Research on the cumulative impacts of overweight children led Johnson, elected to the Mayor’s office in 2005, and others in city government to work to create an environment in Hernando where activity is implicit in the daily routine of residents.

The city passed design standards requiring sidewalks in all new development and redevelopment projects. This means new neighborhoods, especially those constructed during the last housing boom, are connected to other parts of town.

A complete streets policy, championed by Johnson, requires new road construction to consider pedestrians and bicyclists. Today, many of the roads in Hernando include designated bike lines in addition to sidewalks and other pedestrian safety improvements.

Additionally, a land use ordinance passed by the city requires developers set to aside 10% of their land as open space, which when coupled with the first parks department in Hernando’s history, created by Johnson in 2006, provides more recreation opportunities for residents.

Add in a farmers market, community garden, and a city employee wellness program, and Hernando has become a model for improving health, not to mention attracting a population that has more than doubled since 2000. Fittingly, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi named Hernando as the first ever “Healthiest Hometown in Mississippi” for 2010.

The changes to create a healthier lifestyle for more residents of Hernando and combat the obesity epidemic have resulted, too, in changes to how the city, and its economy, has grown.

There are many benefits to this approach. Not only does encouraging alternative modes of transportation and recreational opportunities allow residents to be active within their normal routines, but lowering obesity rates in Hernando has meant lowering associated healthcare costs and insurance premiums, which are only rising in Mississippi.

As if that didn’t make enough of a case for encouraging a different type of development in the largely fiscally conservative South, Hernando has also seen an increase in business growth. Companies are choosing to locate in Hernando not only for the lower health insurance costs, but also because they know that they can attract a more talented workforce in places where people want to live; cities with a high quality of life and options on how to live and get around. “Growing based on smart growth principles is helping our economic base,” says Johnson. “We are now recruiting businesses with almost no financial incentives.”

The addition of sidewalks, bike lanes, nearby park space, and other streetscape improvements has meant a rise in home values and has also fostered a stronger sense of community, according to Mayor Johnson, as more people are out enjoying the parks, playgrounds, and trails that are now in place.

“Making changes to the built environment to fight obesity, particularly in our youth, is the right thing to do, but it’s also an economic development tool,” says Mayor Johnson. “Our property is worth more now.” The City of Hernando worked to redo all of the sidewalks in its historic downtown square, making them ADA accessible. This has had an impact on business, says Johnson. According to him, in 2005 nearly half of the buildings downtown were vacant, today none are, and a few new buildings right off of that square are in the process of being built.

New residents are drawn to Hernando because of the ability to walk or bike to work, the farmers market, and the sidewalks that connect to downtown. They recognize the amenities that Hernando offers and are choosing to make it home. Those residents, like Mayor Johnson, are recognizing that offering denser development as an option on where to live is not a bad thing. “I was brought up in the generation that aspired to live in a big house on an acre and a half lot,” says Johnson. “I’ve educated myself into a different opinion, particularly about the use of our tax dollars. I’d rather have 100 taxpayers pay for half a mile of road than 10. “

What began as a mission to allow children to have healthier lives has become so much more than physical fitness and disease prevention in Hernando, Mississippi. Now residents have the added benefit of a healthy environment, a healthy economy, a healthy tax base, and a healthy future for generations to come.

Local Leaders Council