In February 2019, the University of South Carolina Lancaster (USCL) applied for a Let’s Go! 3.0 mini-grant to increase access to its outdoor recreation amenities by adopting an open community use policy and to continue its active community environments work with Wholespire Lancaster County, formerly Eat Smart Move More Lancaster County.
The partners had completed several community health improvement projects that increased access to healthy opportunities. The mini-grant would help complete their vision while focusing on the Clinton community, a Qualified Opportunity Zone (QOZ) in the City of Lancaster. QOZs are characterized as economically distressed communities defined by the census tract.
Existing projects that needed to be completed were:
- Improvement of the built environment in the Clinton neighborhood by extending bike lanes and crosswalks and offering a loop to the Lindsay Pettus Greenway, which improved access to the USCL campus.
- USCL public health students conducted an assessment on student on-campus walking behaviors. They used the data to develop walking routes for anyone to utilize while on campus.
- USCL’s recreation facilities were open to the public (including trails, walking routes, tennis courts, picnic pavilion, 5K starting point, bike lanes, and crosswalks). However, the promotion of these facilities has been limited to word-of-mouth.
- The Gregory YMCA began managing the operations of the University-owned recreation facility. USCL secured funding for the YMCA to provide sliding scale financial assistance to income-eligible YMCA members on a long-term, sustained basis. Approximately 400 Lancaster residents utilize this benefit from the YMCA, many of whom live in the nearby Clinton community.
Let’s Go 3.0 mini-grant funds were used to:
- Hire a professional designer to create a campus map of outdoor recreational facilities open to the public, which included the student-design walking routes.
- Purchase and install way-finding signs that promote the open use amenities and walking routes.
- Promote the open community use agreement policy to the community. Promotional strategies included issuing a press release to The Lancaster News, posting the press release on USCL’s website and social media, and announcing the existence and availability of these community resources at USCL’s student orientation and Clinton Elementary School’s Parent Night.
- Purchase bike racks for the Lindsay Pettus Greenway trailhead in the Clinton community and the USCL campus.
For USCL, the challenge wasn’t creating new opportunities for physical activities, it was promoting the ones they already had. The USCL campus has seven buildings, a YMCA in the physical education building, tennis courts, and about a mile and a half of natural path trails.
“We’re very community-oriented, and there’s a lot of word-of-mouth advertising. This is how a lot of small towns, small communities go. We just assume that people know things, but we’re only reaching our own social circles,” explained Lauren Vincent Thomas, professor of health promotion education and behavior at USCL.
The first step was passing an open community use agreement. “When we learned about the Let’s Go 3.0 mini-grant to promote and pass an open community use agreement, I felt like we kind of already had it, we just hadn’t set it as a policy,” said Thomas. “In reality, people use the trail and the tennis court IF they know that they can, but it wasn’t widely known information.”
During the initial conversation with university leadership, they said people already knew about the trails. Convincing them that the project had value was most of the battle with the project. According to Thomas, “Wholespire had this great manual that answered all of my questions. I felt very equipped and confident when the Education Foundation asked about liability.”
A Snowball Affect
Before this project moved to the next steps, debris that was dumped in front of trails was cleared. “It just sent a message that we didn’t care about the campus,” Thomas said while explaining how things like debris deterred people from using the trails. “After that, it was just about updating some features and showing what the campus had to offer. The website was updated, billboards with maps were placed in prime positions, and trail markers and entrances were added.”
Once the project was started, more opportunities were uncovered. “We found money to put split rail fencing up to show off the trail and leveraged funding from another grant to put bike racks in, and we worked with the South Carolina Wildlife Federation to certify that we had a wildlife habitat,” said Thomas. “It reminded us of what we had and gave us the opportunity to share with other people.”
Thomas’ favorite part of the project has been connecting with people who are readily willing to offer their own gifts, talents, and resources.
“We just needed to give them the opportunity and generously thank them for what they offer. For example, we partnered with, an organization in our community that builds ADA ramps for seniors and people who have disabilities, to build a new bridge on one of the trails. They were willing to do this project for us for free as long as they got the credit. There is so much creative generosity in our community. Now, our partners feel like the trails are just as much theirs as it is USC Lancaster’s and that’s exactly what we want.”
The students on campus have been enjoying the positive changes the project brought. The picnic shelter has seen new light now that people know it’s there and university organizations have been enjoying the cleared trails. An outdoor club put in geocaches and monitors them to add new prizes and F3, a male CrossFit group, uses the trails for Saturday morning runs.
The project has also affected conversations about the university’s 10-year Master Plan. “This mini-grant project has primed us to have that bigger conversation about walkability in our community,” said Thomas. “There is a four-lane highway between USC Lancaster’s campus and downtown Lancaster that could benefit from a crosswalk or pedestrian bridge!”
Thomas is hoping this project is the start of making the community more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.