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Charting healthy course for Perham is aim of initiative

Perham is in the forefront of what is being described as the "most comprehensive statewide health improvement plan in the nation.

The city's forefathers, more than a century ago, mapped out the city in a decidedly pro-health manner-probably by complete happenstance.

That was the message from health and civic planning officials, who gave a presentation May 4 for a group of about 50 at the Perham Area Community Center.

"Make the healthy choice the easy choice," is simple terms, is the objective, said Karen Nitzkorski, a community organizer for the SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Plan) initiative.

Preventative medicine, by promoting active lifestyles and better diet, is the focus of the program. Perham is one of four area cities in the region that is involved with SHIP.

Most of the discussion in Perham revolved around bicycling and walking; and how civic planning can improve access and promote active living.

Perham is in a great position to promote active lifestyles-largely due to a quirk of history., according to Patrick Hollister, active living planner.

When the city was platted more than 100 years ago, many of the main thoroughfares have an unusually wide 90 feet of right-of-way. The extra width, in many cases, can accommodate a walking and biking lane.

"Creating a bike or pedestrian route may be as simple as a can of yellow spray paint to create a lane," said Hollister.

Another quirk of history that works to Perham's benefit: The street grid was design ed at an angle, to line up with the angular direction of the railroad tracks, said Hollister. Rather than a straight north and south grid, the streets form a grid that parallels the rail tracks.

"Everything in Perham lines up like a dream," said Hollister with a smile.

The informational meeting was interactive, as survey questions were read and attendees responded immediately to the questions, via electronic clickers.

Among the group, the responses suggested that there is not a biking and walking "culture" in Perham.

"I think biking gets a bad rap in Perham," said Dr. Rand Stolee, an avid bicyclist himself. "It is actually very easy to bike in Perham."

Within the city, it is easy and quite accessible to peddle downtown, to the schools, and to the recreational trail at Arvig Park.

The main routes leading into town, however, are a different story.

Narrow shoulders on Highway 78 and Highway 8 make it extremely dangerous for bicyclists, noted Marilyn Hoffland.

Scandinavian and other European countries have lead the way in bicycle-friendly planning, noted Hollister. The U.S. hasn't evolved as far as Europe with bike-friendly policies, but according to Hollister, the times are changing.

"There is a transformation of thinking at the county and state level. The good news is that the legislature is becoming more tuned to planning that encourages bicycling and active lifestyles," said Hollister. "Over time, things will get better."

Other discussion items during the informational meeting:

-One suggestion was to more clearly link routes to the recreational trains and parks-possibly through a color-coded scheme.

-Unlike some smaller towns, Perham's downtown remains vital with a wide range of retail shopping. Because it is centered in a high population concentration, biking and walking to take care of errands is more conducive than those small towns that have experienced an exodus of businesses to strip developments along less-pedestrian-friendly highways and streets.

-Search for ways to encourage commuters to bring their vehicles to get to work, but promote biking and walking while in town during workday.

-To expand biking, walking and joggling opportunities, "mini-loops" could be extended to expand the main trails.

-The proposed disc (Frisbee) golf course, which could be operational by June, is a prime example of how an activity can be added to a health strategy at low up-up front and long-term expense.

Perham's health improvement plan will be an ongoing endeavor in the community. More information, details and planning will continue for the coming months. Local contacts for the health planning process include Chuck Johnson, city of Perham, at 346-9798; and Kevin Nelson, Perham Area Community Center, 346-7222.