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Opinion: Staying Healthy in Small-Town America

By:  Bill Gillespie Jr. Oct 22, 2012
Staying Healthy in Small Town America

Mayor Bill Gillespie Jr. is shown here riding with members of his town during the Mayor's Bike Ride from Upper Kingston Park to Pratt Park.

Ever since I took over as mayor of the city of Prattville, Alabama, a city of 34,000 residents in the Southeastern United States, we have focused on promoting health and wellness in our community. I, personally, want to age well, feel good and know that I am doing everything I can to remain healthy, not only for myself, but also for my family. With that in mind, I also want to see my loved ones, and our community in general, eating well, maintaining optimum weight for their build, and getting as much exercise as can be worked into their busy lives.

This area of Alabama is called “the River Region” due to numerous waterways that surround the communities of Montgomery, Wetumpka, Millbrook and Prattville. In 2011, the River Region was named the most obese in the country. The city of Montgomery appointed a health and wellness czar to head an effort to decrease this area’s waistline. The River Region has since gone from a 34.6 percent obesity rate in 2010 to 33.4 percent in 2011, and we continue to make strides working both separately and together on this initiative.

Here in the city of Prattville, we have approached health and wellness with fun in mind. We have created events that involve physical activity, but are not obvious exercise. Every family can use their time together to get outside, take advantage of what their city has to offer and get physical activity in without feeling like they are exercising. When organizing events centered on health and wellness, we have consistently created physical activities that are fun, interesting, or include historical information. For instance, we have the Autauga Creek Canoe Trail. We created a committee to improve the canoe trail, which has revitalized this amenity as an attraction that brings people out in droves. Not only did the committee and all the volunteers work hard to clean up the creek, but now people actively canoe or kayak Autauga Creek individually and in organized groups. The scenery is breathtaking, and the trip is so much fun that you really don’t notice the workout you get along the way.

Partnerships are key to promoting and holding successful events. We have partnered with Nickelodeon for the Worldwide Day of Play, holding fun events that begin the process of engaging our youth and sometimes introducing them to a sport or activity with which they were not previously familiar. It is our thought that any activity that gets our youth outside and moving helps to prevent childhood obesity in our community.

We actively work with the Central Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, the Autauga County Board of Education, and River Region Lean to organize “Walk to School Day” events. We have partnered with the National Park Trust to promote National Kids to Parks Day. We used that proclamation to hold a Mayor’s Bike Ride from Upper Kingston Park to Pratt Park, where we had a “Touch a Truck” event waiting and other fun activities that kept the children outside and active for a portion of the day. We continue to add on to these events each month.

By now, most everyone knows that we won the Coca-Cola “America Is Your Park” contest and the $100,000 grant. The spirit of the contest was to get people out to the park. We went all out to hold event after event in Pratt Park, home to America’s Favorite Park. Team Pratt Park coordinated flash mob voting and check-ins using laptops and mobile devices via livepositively.com and foursquare while also taking advantage of the pool, a karaoke event and so much more. We had more visitors to Pratt Park this summer than ever before. I consider that a triumph and feel good about achieving the goal set by Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola’s contest also solidified for me how important social media is to a successful event. We had a significant presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube prior to the contest, and we used those tools to our advantage. We have engaged our citizenry, and we consider that the first, most important step to the success of our health and wellness program.

We added a menu to the Residents section of our website www.prattvilleal.gov. It is currently populated with good information about eating better, living well, bike routes and fitness routes. In the coming months, we will continue to add to that information as we continue to migrate health, wellness, and regular outdoor activity into a way of life in Prattville, Alabama.

In closing, another significant reason for our focus on health and wellness in small-town America is economic development. Economic development is very important to municipalities because it creates growth, new job opportunities and additional revenue. When a prospective business owner/employer comes into town, they will be looking over the local workforce for mental and physical strengths. Outdoor activities can strengthen the family unit as well as create a more tight-knit community, which is important when working together toward any goal. The benefits of living positively in small-town America are further reaching than just appearance, which is why we’ve continued to give it primary attention in Prattville, Alabama.

Staying Healthy in Small Town America

Mayor Gillespie at the Worldwide Day of Play golf event.


Bill Gillespie Jr. is the mayor of the city of Prattville, Alabama. He was appointed to the position on January 18, 2011, and was recently elected to a full term of office in August 2012. He was city council president when appointed to mayor and had served on the Prattville City Council for six years. Gillespie has been married to his wife Stephanie for 32 years, and they have two children. Prior to assuming his role as mayor, he ran a small family tire business in Prattville.