Months after Charleston leaders expected to make an announcement about the launch of a multi-million-dollar wellness project, private donations to fund it have so far failed to materialize.
The proposed Blue Zones Project has been touted by organizers, including Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, as a way to help city residents live longer, happier, healthier lives. The project promotes activity, healthy food choices, sociability and faith, among other things.
But implementing the plan in Charleston will cost $10 million and it remains unclear who will pay for it.
In other Blue Zones cities, the projects have typically been covered by large private hospitals and health insurance companies. But Roper St. Francis and the Medical Society of South Carolina have not made a commitment to pay for Charleston's project, a spokesman for the hospital system confirmed this week. And BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina leaders are "still in conversation" about making an investment but have not made a final decision, a spokeswoman for the insurance company said.
The Medical University of South Carolina officially supports the project, but leaders there have not committed a dollar amount.
"It's not something that one organization can support on its own," said MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine. "Once the number of sponsors is finalized, my understanding is that the discussion will commence around dollar amounts for funding the project, at various sponsorship levels, for those participating organizations."
Even so, the project is running behind schedule. One Blue Zones Project organizer explained earlier this year that Charleston's planning committee hoped to announce its official launch in May.
Last week, Susan Johnson, who also works at MUSC and has helped spearhead the Blue Zones Project in Charleston, said Tecklenburg is now guiding the process to secure sponsors.
"No specific timeline," Johnson said, "but given how things have progressed over the past few weeks, I think we are looking at September."
City of Charleston spokesman Jack O’Toole confirmed in a prepared statement the city's primary role is to "organize supporters and potential sponsors."
"That process is moving forward now," O'Toole said, "and it’s our understanding that these stakeholder groups will have more to report shortly."
Meanwhile, officials in Yakima, Washington, backed out of a proposed Blue Zones Project last month after the for-profit, Minneapolis-based Blue Zones company told organizers it would cost $3.25 million more than originally expected.
"The amount is a lot more than we anticipated," said Dr. Yami Cazorla-Lancaster, co-founder of the Yakima Health and Wellbeing Coalition, in a story by the Yakima Herald.
Now, the Yakima Blue Zones Project is officially "on hold." This, after three cities in Iowa announced earlier this year they would drop the Blue Zones Project after failing to raise more money to sustain it.
The Blue Zones Project was established a few years ago after Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer, identified five communities in the world — the so-called “Blue Zones” — where residents live beyond normal life expectancy.
Buettner concluded that people in the Blue Zones shared nine common traits. Most of them, for example, participate in a faith-based group. Most of them drink wine socially. Most of them are naturally active.
He then built a company on the premise that these healthy habits could be replicated in other places. To date, the Blue Zones Project has been implemented in more than 40 communities across the United States.
In May, The Post and Courier reported the project has been met with mixed results. While some cities have made strides combating tobacco use and childhood obesity, others have watched STD rates and poor mental health days move in the wrong direction.
The newspaper also reported the company often chooses cities that are already considered relatively healthy. Charleston, for example, is routinely named one of the healthiest counties in South Carolina.
Johnson, with MUSC, previously said the Charleston project would mirror the cost of a similarly-sized Blue Zones Project in California: roughly $10 million over four years.
She said this week, to her knowledge, the "funding estimates for the Charleston project have not changed."