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Falls gets on the Way to Wellville

NIAGARA FALLS – Niagara Falls is hoping that a new health program will lead in the long run to an improved economy, Mayor Paul A. Dyster said last week.

The city was one of five communities across the nation selected to participate in the Way to Wellville, a challenge sponsored by famed technology investor Esther Dyson.

The object is not necessarily for Dyson or anyone other private-sector partners in the health improvement effort to cash in on their investments in the short term, but rather to find funding and ideas that might be used to combat a community’s pathologies, both social and medical.

“It’s in the interest of companies to have a healthier society and work force,” Dyster said.

The communities will be asked to work with investors who see things that way, too. A conference in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 16-18 will start the project, with presentations on how to make their communities healthier through what Niagara Falls City Administrator Donna Owens called “social entrepreneurship.”

Dyster said he hopes to attend that conference unless he has a scheduling conflict.

Dyson, described as an “angel investor,” recently founded the Health Initiative Coordinating Council, which she prefers to call HICCup, to conduct a contest involving five places that are given five years to improve in five metrics, or areas of measurement.

Dyster said he thought Niagara Falls was among the five participants chosen from among 42 applicants because it has made a start down this road with the mayor’s Task Force for a Healthier Niagara Falls.

That has now been converted into the Create a Healthier Niagara Falls Collaborative, headed by Shelley Hirshberg, a volunteer who said she is “committing the next five years to helping turn Niagara Falls around.”

Niagara Falls’ effort will focus on trying to improve what the health initiative council calls “social determinants of health,” such as transportation, housing and employment. On the medical front, target areas will include teenage pregnancy, childhood obesity and other chronic diseases that hold back chances at economic advancement.

For example, Niagara Falls’ high teen pregnancy rate is tied closely to its high poverty rate, Dyster said.

Also, a lack of good public transportation means that people often lack access to good health services or to stores that sell healthier food choices.

Margaret Lapp of Cornell Cooperative Extension, head of the Plentiful Partnership of Niagara, told The Buffalo News last month that parts of Niagara Falls are “a food desert” as far as fresh fruit and vegetables are concerned.

“There’s a lot going on in relation to food in Niagara Falls and Niagara County,” Hirshberg said. Dyster said examples are efforts to encourage convenience stores to stock fresh food – Wilson Farms responded, the mayor said – and promoting community vegetable gardens.

All of the participating municipalities will try to improve child nutrition, the overall food environment, local social conditions and the local availability of preventive and chronic disease care.

“Health and wellness, broadly defined, is one of the factors by which we’re going to succeed as a nation,” Dyster said.

Rick Brush, a former executive at the Cigna health insurance company, is the chief executive officer of the health initiative council. He said in a news release, “HICCup and its partners will support the Wellville communities in much the same way that a startup accelerator supports a promising business idea and leadership team. In this case, the community is the startup, and the community’s product is health.”

The HICCup team will seek to measure the impact of the city’s programs and seek visible improvements.

Dyson said, “We’ll be measuring everything to see what makes the greatest impact, from healthier school lunches and better housing, to early childhood education and economic development, to active social networks and workplace wellness.”

Hirshberg said there are about 20 local organizations in the task group, and about 50 on the community advisory council. She said a residents council also will be formed as part of the Wellville effort.

The other communities selected were Clatsop County, Ore.; Greater Muskegon, Mich.; Lake County, Calif.; and Spartanburg, S.C. All, like Niagara Falls, have populations of less than 100,000, which was the cut-off point.

Dyson, former chairwoman of the committee that assigned Internet suffixes, is a technology analyst turned investor who cashed in big on several Internet startups.

The fiscal support for HICCup comes from the Washington-based New Venture Fund, a tax-exempt organization with nearly $43 million in assets as of the end of 2012. Dyson invested $200,000 of her own money, according to Forbes magazine report.