'Core' Fitness Facility Has Goal of Making City Healthiest in Nation

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Copyright 2013 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved

The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
October 18, 2013 Friday
NEWS; Pg. 1B
746 words
Development; New Albany builds its 'Core';
Community fitness center, called the Core, comes with dreams of city health, happiness

Just down the road from where Phil Heit sits sipping coffee, construction workers are tearing up a huge patch of land.

It's a major project in the center of town. The New Albany Center for Healthy Living -- the Core, they're calling it -- will be 55,000 square feet of medical, educational and fitness space built with a lofty goal: making New Albany the healthiest community in the nation.

None of this would have happened without Heit, though he'll hate to read this sentence. New Albany's grandiose health efforts have risen on the backs of hundreds of volunteers, but it's been Heit, the New York transplant and health-textbook author, leading the way.

"Phil is a force of nature," said Craig Mohre, executive director of the New Albany Community Foundation. "I said to him, 'You give me energy the way you dream about things. You just make me want to go out and make it happen.' "

Heit is a 69-year-old health evangelist with white hair and a thick New York accent. He was a marathon runner when it was a novelty, way before everyone slapped those 26.2 stickers on their bumpers. He came to Ohio in 1976 to work at Ohio State University and eventually moved to New Albany, where his knees gave out in 2003 after years of 100-mile running weeks.

A doctor suggested he take up walking. Heit thought walking was for wimps, but he tried it anyway. He walked as fast and as long as he could. After people began to join him, Heit started a walking club. Then he launched the New Albany Walking Classic -- a half-marathon and 10K walking race -- in 2005.

He struggled to get sponsors that first year, because no one thought a walking race would be popular. It sells out every year now; walkers come from all over the country.

"In life, to succeed you have to dream," Heit said. "And if you don't have dreams, you don't go anywhere."

So Heit dreamed, and the healthy New Albany movement went everywhere. It started with walking and then led to a nonprofit organization named, naturally enough, Healthy New Albany. There were farmers markets, community gardens and health lectures.

When community leaders started talking about building a recreation center, Heit and Mohre thought it could be something more. They convened to talk about what New Albany had and what it needed.

"Phil's vision was always much bigger," Mohre said. "I couldn't have envisioned the size of the building."

The New Albany Company, the real-estate development company that arguably built the city, donated the land for the center, and Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and Nationwide Children's Hospital signed on as partners. The $13 million project, which will include lap pools, outdoor gathering spaces and a public parking lot, broke ground in August and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014.

That center is an idea built on dreams, too. Its goal isn't so much to react to illness, but to bolster life and the things that make it great: the best foods and exercise, a fulfilling social network, plenty of sleep and a sunny outlook. New Albany's 8,000 residents and 12,000 workers will be able to get personalized plans at the center for improving their lives, including diet and exercise. Those involved in the project see it going far beyond that.

"The future of a great health system ... really should be about creating a healthier population and a well population versus just trying (to figure out) what to do with a broken population," said Clay Marsh, chief innovation officer for Wexner Medical Center. "We're really trying to provide services to help your life be as great as it possibly can."

Marsh said the center will aim to influence the community, "to bend the world" so that healthy choices are easy choices. That means working with restaurants and grocery stores to offer healthier food options, and tapping into the city's interconnected social networks to boost things such as mindfulness and positivity.

It sounds a little nebulous, and it is, as the center's key players -- and plenty of volunteers -- are still ironing out what exactly this huge complex will be.

Heit, ever the visionary, sees the center becoming a model for communities across the country. Back at the coffee shop, he's asked why he cares so much, why the welfare of anybody else is so important to him.

He hesitated and said this has been his whole career, but then he whittled it down to a single sentence.

"It is about, for me," he said, "seeing people happy and healthy."

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Photo and Map
EAMON QUEENEY / DISPATCH (1) New Albany's fitness center takes shape along Main Street. Phil Heit, a former runner who helped spearhead the effort, envisions the center as a model for cities across the nation. (2) The $13 million fitness center, named the Core New Albany Center for Healthy Living, will include 55,000 square feet of medical, educational and fitness space. The project began in August. Plans call for it to open in fall 2014. (3) Phil Heit
October 18, 2013

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