For much of her life, Sunnie Bell has taught about diabetes and the importance of walking as exercise.
After moving to Astoria from Las Cruces, New Mexico, several years ago, Bell found it harder to keep up on her walking.
To keep herself and others moving, Bell is creating the Sunflower Dairy Indoor Walking Park on Duane Street, with hopes of opening by month’s end.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to improve the health of other people,” Bell said.
Bell bought the former Sunflower Dairy Co. building, directly west of the former J.C. Penney store, 2 1/2 years ago as a retirement investment. She became landlord to Paramount Drug Co. on Commercial Street and Shear Expressions Salon on Duane Street, along with a garage storage space used by J.C. Penney until the retailer closed earlier this year. The closure left Bell with 2,600 square feet of empty property.
While on a recent trip to Israel, she came up with the idea of the park.
Contractors working in the former storage area are putting the finishing touches on a springy, slightly elevated wooden walking track and hand railings Bell estimates at about one-fourteenth of a mile. The track winds through distinct sections filled with bright painted blue skies and stylistic elements of Arizona, New Mexico, Route 66 and tropical islands.
Bell is having bathrooms built and plans to add heating, seating and areas for her to teach about diabetes prevention. Near the front will be a case selling some milk products, a nod to the building’s past.
Bell started as a nurse in the 1960s and said that by 10 to 15 years into her career, she was noticing how often diabetes was showing up in patient’s charts. She eventually specialized in diabetes education, and was named the National Diabetes Educator of the Year in 1995 by the American Association of Diabetes Educators.
“Everything in the body is affected by diabetes,” she said. “And what leads to diabetes? Weight problems.”
Living in Astoria, Bell found the roads too dangerous when wet and has taken to doing laps around the first floor of her house. She plans to regularly walk in the park regardless of who else shows up, but has been recruiting through flyers, physician referrals and word of mouth.
She recommends walking after meals and said the park will open in spurts between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m., with memberships and daylong access for $5.
“I hope it will be for all ages and all conditions,” Bell said. “I’ve stayed in good condition because of walking, and I know that. I’m now in my eighth decade, and I’m feeling pretty fine.”