Last Tuesday, the Altoona Mirror ran a story on its front page by Bill Kibler announcing “County Health Survey coming.” The headline itself was prominent and even had a bit of an ominous feel to it. Health, it seems, has developed connotations of more than one kind.
The Healthy Blair County Coalition, headed by Coleen Heim, was created to fulfill a requirement of the Affordable Care Act. This project began in 2007 with the first Community Health Needs Assessment. In 2012, all non-profit hospitals were not only mandated to conduct a similar assessment but also to develop an intervention plan to meet those community health needs.
They had a big job ahead of them. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which does health rankings of every county in the country, ranked Blair County as the 63rd healthiest county in Pennsylvania. In a state with 67 counties, we had little to brag about.
The survey results spit-out the details. We had considerable problems with alcohol and drug use, obesity, poverty, mental health issues, smoking and even bad teeth. Otherwise, as the old joke goes, we were nearly perfect.
Coleen Heim didn’t despair. Through her efforts, which included assembling committees, task forces, and focus groups, meaningful discussions took place that ultimately led to initiatives that systematically addressed each of the health-related challenges. One of those committees – Workplace Wellness – was started by the Chamber at Heim’s urging and continues to direct attention to the importance of employers encouraging their employees to pursue healthy lifestyles.
From 63rd, Blair County is now ranked 39th, which Heim admitted might be slightly misleading.
“There are a number of factors that change some of the indicators,” she noted. “But the reality is that we’re doing better in most categories and it’s great that so many people are spreading the message and so many others are getting it.”
There are still some outliers. I passed a man in the hallway at the Blair Regional YMCA a few days ago who was wearing a t-shirt that on one side said, “I’m into fitness” and on the other side said, “Fit’ness whole burrito in my mouth.”
The struggle continues. Later this week, surveys will be mailed to 3,000 random households in the county. In addition, surveys will be emailed to key leaders, service providers and associations. Anyone wanting to complete the survey can do so on the HBCC Website.
There’s a Greek Proverb that goes like this: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Rex Kaup was a tree planter. Fred Imler and Bill Thompson were too. Within the last two years, we lost all three of them.
Although it has never been officially established as a group or club or association, the eighteen recipients of the Chamber’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Business Excellence have a connection that goes well beyond simply sharing a special night and a glass obelisk.
Rex Kaup’s recent passing only brought it to the forefront one more time. As a grieving business community spoke with near reverence for the kindheartedness and civic altruism that made Rex special, it had quite a familiar ring to it. I’m sure I heard those same sentiments, or something very close, about Fred Imler. About Bill Thompson and Tim Sissler and Don Devorris. About Ernie Wissinger, the award’s first recipient.
Pity that it takes death to remind people how important someone was in life.
There is little doubt that the term Business Excellence carries a high degree of subjectivity. Most people will tell you that they know it when they see it but too often the eye-test only lends itself to controversy. The “tree planters” in the Greek Proverb have possibly unearthed the closest thing to a common denominator. Validation should take no more than a glance at a person’s legacy.
When I think of the eighteen award recipients I come to two conclusions. Every one of them fits the tree planter definition and Ann Benzel would not be enamored with being described as one of the Proverb’s “old men.”
In October, Mark Barnhart, Owner and Chairman of the Board of NPC, will be the 19th recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Business Excellence. Mark has the distinction of being the only honoree to be selected one year and honored the next. Covid-19 changed a lot of plans.
Consider this: Last September, Mark and his company donated 140 laptop computers to the Claysburg-Kimmel School District to help students impacted by the pandemic to be able to learn virtually. That act of generosity is consistent with the dozens of similar things that NPC does without regard to short-term recognition.
Do you think Mark Barnhart understands the importance of planting trees?
(Joe Hurd is President/CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce)
Last Friday around noon, I pulled into the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant in Altoona and was surprised to see that I was the only car in line. As I pulled-up to place my order, I noticed a sign on the window announcing that the restaurant was closed due to “unavoidable circumstances.” Those circumstances, I later learned, were due to insufficient staffing.
I’ve shared that experience with a number of people in the local hospitality industry and they were amazed. Not amazed that a business had closed for lack of employees. Amazed that I was apparently out-of-the-loop on what has gradually been taking place, not just in hospitality, but throughout the business community.
I felt like Rip Van Winkle. While I was continuing to fight the battle to allow more businesses to reopen at full customer capacity, the other shoe was preparing to drop.
“We waited so long to get back to operating at close to normal levels,” a restaurant owner told me, “and now we’ve got no one to work.” Many restaurants have cut hours to more effectively utilize the employees they have. It is also not uncommon to be greeted at the front door of a hospitality business by a sign requesting patience within the realm of customer service.
So who’s to blame for all this? You can point your finger in a number of directions. The fact that the Unemployment Compensation system has made it more profitable to stay at home than to work gets most of the invective. In reality though, we’re past the point of looking for scapegoats. It’s time to look for solutions.
The Chamber’s Public Policy Committee will be taking the lead in creating a strategy to ascertain just how many businesses are struggling, their short-term staffing needs and other challenges that are making life difficult. From the staffing standpoint, it’s important to remember that workforce issues carried high importance prior to the pandemic. The Chamber will be announcing a new initiative within a few weeks to begin addressing long-term approaches on a regional scale.
The Blair County business community holds the key to our future growth and our quality of life. Our workforce is the heart and soul of that community. We’ve got to stay alert (and awake!) to confront the obstacles ahead.
(Joe Hurd is President/CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce)