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Contributed rendering by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee / Rendering shows aerial view of the proposed changes for the St. Elmo Park to be made in 2021 through a grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation.

After helping to fund the revamp of Miller Park in downtown Chattanooga and a new playground and school recreation field in Highland Park over the past four years, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation will help add more exercise and playground equipment at the St. Elmo park in 2021.

The Chattanooga-based health insurer said it is marking its 75th year by donating $7.5 million to enhance healthy places at parks across Tennessee, including $750,000 for fitness and fun improvements to the city park in St. Elmo. Construction on the projects is scheduled to begin next year and will be completed by the foundation's build partner, Chattanooga-based PlayCore.

"Our mission at BlueCross is serving our neighbors, and we couldn't think of a better way to celebrate our 75th anniversary than by giving Tennesseans more spaces to connect with one another and pursue healthy activities together," Roy Vaughn, executive director of the BlueCross Foundation, said in an announcement of the park funding. "We look forward to partnering with each of these communities to enhance and revitalize these spaces, providing new amenities for all residents to enjoy."

In 2019, the BlueCross Foundation helped to launch a nearly $5 million park in Highland Park near the Chattanooga Girls Preparatory School and its partner school, the all-boys charter school Chattanooga Preparatory School. Spanning nearly two blocks between Hawthorne Street and South Orchard Knob Avenue, the Highland Park complex will include inclusive playgrounds, a soccer field, a basketball and tennis court, among other amenities when it opens in early 2021.

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Photo by Dave Flessner / Workers install new playground equipment and the new park taking shape in Highland Park, one of the recipients of funding for healthy places by the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation.

The improvements planned next year at the St. Elmo Park at 4909 St. Elmo Avenue will include a fitness station, a challenge course, children's play areas for both preschool and elementary-age children, and a community lawn.

The City of Chattanooga applied for the BlueCross Healthy Place grant, noting in its appeal to BlueCross that "while the existing playground is well loved, it has also been well used, and the years of wear and tear have had adverse effects on the equipment."

"The park needs to be reimagined — two new play areas and a fitness zone will benefit residents young and old by improving the user experience and reducing maintenance costs," Chattanooga planners said in the application for the BlueCross foundation aid.

The St. Elmo park upgrade is one of 10 planned in municipal and county parks across Tennessee in 2021 with funding from the foundation created by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state's biggest health insurer.

The park projects are designed to help the health of those who exercise, play games and otherwise use the park facilities, officials said. Some of the upgrades will include pavilions as a community hub, while others will feature playground equipment for children and some will include exercise devices for adults.

BlueCross Vice President Scott Wilson said the park upgrades also are helping the health of local communities around the park.

In Memphis where BlueCross pumped in $5.4 million to renovate the David Carnes Park in its first Healthy Place project in 2018, home values in the neighborhood have increased since the park opening, Wilson said.

"Thriving communities tend to have places where people can gather and where they can get out and exercise," Wilson said. "In Memphis, there have been people who have moved into the neighborhood because the David Carnes Park has had such an impact. It's literally affecting home prices."

Separate from the Healthy Places grants, the Blue Cross Foundation also helped to fund $1 million of the $10.3 million revamp of Miller Park, which was completed in 2018 to aid in keeping Chattanooga's downtown as an entertainment and meeting place for the entire region.

With the addition of the 10 new projects for 2021, the BlueCross Foundation has invested $31.7 million in community spaces across the state.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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