A new fighter pilot training mission is making waves in Fort Smith. And should be. To quote Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman,” it’s “a big deal.”
Last summer, the US Air Force selected Ebbing Air National Guard Base as the preferred location for a training facility for foreign F-35 and F-16 pilots. As word spreads about other countries that will use Fort Smith as a training site, the excitement grows. Singapore, Switzerland and Germany are among the countries expected to participate in what is called the Foreign Military Sales program.
At a meeting at Fort Smith earlier this year, Rob Ator, a retired Air Force colonel who is now director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said, “It’s is like getting a 2,000 job project. It is enormous. It’s like putting a Nissan manufacturing plant in the middle of Fort Smith. It is a very big problem.
Ator said it would be an “enduring mission” that could last 30 years or more. A retired Air Force general I spoke with confirmed that the mission could be at Fort Smith for decades.
I wrote about the project last Sunday. What I haven’t written about is another sector of the economy that is giving a boost to this former manufacturing hub on the banks of the Arkansas River. It’s health care.
Mercy Hospital Fort Smith and Baptist Health are contributing tens of millions of dollars to improving their facilities in the city. Fort Smith is steadily strengthening its position as a medical center serving large parts of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
Fort Smith’s health care explosion brought me this Friday to what was once the posh corporate complex of Golden Living, a chain of nursing homes formerly known as Beverly. Last fall, Arkansas Colleges of Health Education announced that the former headquarters at 1000 Fianna Way would become the health and wellness center for the ACHE Research Institute.
ACHE creates the largest research institution of any school of osteopathy in the country.
The complex covers 318,000 square feet and went on the market in April 2018. About 400 Golden Living employees worked there at the time, up from 900 several years earlier. The headquarters moved to Plano, Texas in 2011. Golden Living donated equipment and furniture. The purchase included 63 acres of surrounding land.
In late 2009, Sparks Health System was sold for $136 million to a company then known as Health Management Associates. In 2018, Little Rock-based Baptist Health purchased Sparks Health System, which had nearly 1,600 employees at hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren, as well as affiliated medical clinics in western Arkansas and North America. east of Oklahoma.
After the liabilities were settled from the 2009 sale, the hospital foundation had over $60 million to invest. I know of foundations across the country that have benefited from the sale of hospitals, but I can’t think of any that have gotten more bang for their buck than Fort Smith.
Kyle Parker is the visionary who worked to transform Fort Smith from the manufacturing hub of the state to a place where science, technology and intellectual capital play a leading role. Five years ago, I first visited ACHE as its College of Osteopathic Medicine in Arkansas welcomed its first class of 162 students.
“Those of us on the Degen Foundation board started asking what we could do to improve the health of people in this state,” Parker told me at the time. “The thing we’ve been told over and over is that we should start an osteopathic medical school and then place our graduates in towns in Arkansas.
“We then started visiting schools across the country. We asked the principals of these schools what they would do differently if they were starting from scratch. This led us to build one of the most modern in the world.”
The 102,000 square foot building in Chaffee Crossing that houses the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine cost $34 million, and Parker says it is among the most technologically advanced facilities of its kind. It is home to nearly 600 medical students.
Parker’s plans didn’t stop there for the original 228-acre ACHE plot at Chaffee Crossing. An anonymous donation of $15 million in 2017 enabled the construction of a second building. The 66,000 square foot College of Health Sciences building houses physical therapy, occupational therapy, and physician assistant programs. The ACHE job is now over 150 with an average salary of $160,000.
ACHE has since added a trail system, student accommodation and retail space to Chaffee Crossing. Parker calls the purchase of Golden Living a “game changer, part two.”
At the time of the announcement of the purchase, Talal El-Hefnawy, Director of Research at ACHE, said: “This colossal addition to our very impressive facilities and campus – and the dedication of a significant part of the building to research space – will be beyond what many of us dreamed of.”
It was announced last fall that Thomas Yorio, an internationally renowned glaucoma researcher at the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center, had been hired as a consultant at the Fort Smith Research Center.
“Plans to add state-of-the-art research and clinical facilities within the same complex will enable the translation of research from bench to bedside,” Yorio said. “Apart from the enormous effect this will have on the well-being of residents of Fort Smith, it will also add substantial economic impact.”
Parker doesn’t have small dreams. Passionate about technology, he wrote the first artificial intelligence software ever granted registered copyright for the legal profession while still in law school. In 1989, he digitized Arkansas legal opinions as well as statutory and regulatory laws and released a legal CD-ROM known as CaseBase. In 1994, he created the first searchable legal information website.
LOIS (for Law Office Information Systems) grew to 700 employees and went public in 1999. The company helped revolutionize legal research. Its clients included more than 23,000 law firms, every accredited law school nationwide, and most courts. In 2001 it was sold to an Amsterdam-based publishing house.
Parker tired of the corporate rush and entered higher education in 2009 as vice chancellor of technology at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. He later became Vice Chancellor of Operations. Now Parker and those around him talk about overall health, much like Alice Walton does in Bentonville.
There will be an art gallery on the first floor of Golden Living’s former headquarters. There will be a large gymnasium called the “movement laboratory”. There will be teaching, demonstration and production kitchens.
Artists in residence will exhibit their art throughout the building, which will also include a black box theatre. Gardens and walking paths will be a key feature of the complex. Community engagement will be at the center of the first floor.
“There is no doubt that the visual and performing arts help reduce stress,” Parker said in a recent interview. “Our internal research has shown us that the introduction of art plays a role in reducing the stress levels of our students. Therefore, it can do the same for our community. We will continue our partnerships with related entities to art and will emphasize art throughout our course.”
The second floor will include research labs, academic offices and collaborative spaces. The third floor will house biomedical research activities. Space will be leased on the fourth and fifth floors.
Parker makes it clear that he wants ACHE to partner with public school districts, churches, government agencies, hospitals, businesses and non-profit entities to achieve his vision of a stronger West Arkansas. healthy.
“With space constraints not being an issue, we have the opportunity to change the bottom line in health,” he says. “We will have all the tools to work with our community to transform health and wellbeing.”
Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.