Workplace wellness programs are usually reserved for larger businesses, ones that can afford the costs of providing gymnasium benefits and nutrition incentives to employees.

Thanks to a $1.64 million federal grant, however, small businesses in 19 Maine communities are in the midst of developing workplace wellness plans to encourage and help their employees live healthier lifestyles.

The program, Healthy Maine Streets, is a collaboration between the Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Downtown Center and MCD Public Health.

In Gardiner, one of the 10 designated Main Street communities taking part, the local Main Street program already has hosted a “cash mob” at the nearby farmers’ market and plans to create maps showing the distances of walking trails and routes around downtown.

Main Street is a national program of more than 2,000 accredited communities that tries to revitalize older business districts in small cities and towns in the context of historic preservation.

Clare Marron, owner of Monkitree, a gift shop and art gallery in downtown Gardiner, doesn’t have any employees, but she said the program provides motivation and makes her more aware of her own actions.

“It gives us an opportunity to work as a community of businesses to achieve the same kind of goals,” she said.

The pedometer provided by the program helps too. Marron said she and Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, compare how many steps they’ve taken while wearing the pedometers. She records the amount after each day, she said.

Wright said the pedometers will be used for challenges such as determining who can walk the most in a given week or month. His program is working with the staff from Healthy Communities of the Capital Area to develop work plans for individual businesses.

“We’re still trying to see what the buy-in is going to be. That’s why we’re trying to inspire folks through these fun and interesting kind of things,” Wright said. “For mom-and-pop operations, this is not at the forefront of their minds; so our challenge and opportunity is to come up with a plan that will work for their employees.”

Besides Gardiner, the Main Street communities of Augusta, Bath, Belfast, Biddeford, Brunswick Rockland, Saco, Skowhegan and Waterville are taking part in the program. The municipalities and Maine Downtown Network communities of Bar Harbor, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport, Kennebunk, Lisbon, Machias, Norway, Presque Isle and Rumford also have programs.

Anne Ball, program coordinator for Healthy Maine Streets, said the wellness program is modeled after a similar program in Skowhegan.

Healthy Maine Streets received the grant last October, and the program will be funded through September 2014, Ball said.

The communities, however, will spread out the funding for the program for another year after that. The idea is to transition the wellness program to being funded by the communities so they’ll continue once the grant money runs out, Ball said.

Wellness programs have been shown to reduce absenteeism, improve productivity and lower health insurance costs, Ball said. This is why the Maine Downtown Center views them as another economic development strategy.

Of the 200 businesses taking part in the 19 communities, 41 percent offer health insurance for their employees, Ball said.

“If (communities) are healthier and the people who work there are healthier, the more people will want to live and work there,” she said.

Dugan Murphy, executive director of Skowhegan Main Street, said the original program in Skowhegan was a partnership between the Main Street and the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative.

Because the Healthy Maine Streets Program is modeled after the one in Skowhegan, Murphy said, Skowhegan’s already had been taking similar actions.

He said the long-term goal is to shift to a sustainable funding model.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]