Debbie and Steve Burnette walk on a section of the Tennessee Riverwalk last year which connects the South Chickamauga Greenway to the Riverwalk.
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Greenways, trails and playgrounds are known as tools for reducing rates of chronic diseases, but a new Tennessee Department of Health initiative geared around such amenities seeks to boost more than just physical health.

State health officials hope an effort to spark development of physical activity infrastructure in rural communities also will improve Tennessee's economic pulse.

"We know, as a state, that our workforce is only as strong as it is healthy," said Leslie Meehan, director of the Office of Primary Prevention at the department of health. "Companies coming here want a workforce pool that is healthy, and one that is not going to cost them a lot to insure."

Meehan pointed to amenities such as the Tennessee Riverwalk and Chattanooga's other quality-of-life outdoor offerings as factors in Volkswagen's decision to build a major assembly plant here.

The state's larger metropolitan areas have largely succeeded in providing recreation infrastructure for residents, Meehan said. Smaller communities frequently do not have the staff or money for such projects, however.

The health department hopes to break down some of those barriers and help instill active lifestyles in the state's next generation by planning and developing opportunities for physical activity.

"We're proud to be a part of some of those discussions," Meehan said.

Phase one of the project awarded $10,000 to 89 counties — all except Shelby, Madison, Hamilton, Davidson, Knox and Sullivan — for seed money to set local priorities.

Phase two is expected to lead to more grant funding and planning resources to help the rural counties develop their projects.

The health department is collecting information now from planning and design consultants, city and county planners, regional development districts and engineers.

Meehan said the Tennessee Department of Health does not have the annual budget for outdoor infrastructure that the departments of transportation and environment and conservation do.

"But we're really excited, as a department, to put some skin in the game," she said, adding that department leaders hope the initiative sparks conversations in communities across the state and leads to projects that bolster quality of life.

McMinn County Mayor John Gentry recalled the initial $10,000 grant and called it "wonderful" that the initiative is moving toward phase two. McMinn County and the city of Athens are working to finish the Eureka Trail, a rail-trail project along an abandoned railroad corridor that eventually will connect Athens and Englewood.

Gentry said the project already is providing positive health and tourism benefits, and he added that his 72-year-old father has been enjoying riding a bicycle on the path. Gentry said the county would take advantage of any additional funding available through the health department.

"It's just going to continue to grow in use," he said. "It's a quality-of-life issue on a lot of different levels."

Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said he expects the Mountain Goat Trail, which will be expanded into Grundy County over the next several years, to bring energy to the communities it passes through.

That project also follows an abandoned rail corridor. It now connects Sewanee and Monteagle.

"Those municipalities can take ownership of it and showcase their communities," Brady said. "What I've already seen is folks very active on it, walking, biking, so I do feel like this will bring added exercise to the community. I know it'll also be a huge benefit economically."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at or 423-757-6249.