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OPINION | REX NELSON: A focus on wellness

by Rex Nelson | August 7, 2022 at 1:43 a.m.

A new training mission for fighter pilots is the talk of Fort Smith. And should be. To quote Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman," it's "kind of a big deal."

Last summer, the U.S. Air Force selected Ebbing Air National Guard Base as the preferred location for a training center for foreign pilots of F-35s and F-16s. As word leaks out about additional countries that will use Fort Smith as a training site, the excitement picks up. Singapore, Switzerland and Germany are among countries expected to participate in what's known as the foreign military sales program.

At a meeting in Fort Smith earlier this year, Rob Ator, a retired Air Force colonel who now serves as director of military affairs for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said: "This is like getting a 2,000-job project. This is huge. This is like putting a Nissan manufacturing plant in the middle of Fort Smith. This is a very big deal."

Ator said it will be an "enduring mission" that could last 30 years or more. A retired Air Force general with whom I spoke confirmed that the mission could be in Fort Smith for decades.

I wrote about the project last Sunday. What I didn't write about was another sector of the economy that's providing a boost to this old manufacturing center on the banks of the Arkansas River. That's health care.

Mercy Hospital Fort Smith and Baptist Health are making tens of millions of dollars in improvements to their facilities in the city. Fort Smith is steadily strengthening its position as a medical center serving large parts of west Arkansas and east Oklahoma.

The Fort Smith health-care explosion has brought me on this Friday to what once was the swank corporate complex for Golden Living, a nursing home chain previously known as Beverly. Last fall, the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education announced that the former corporate headquarters at 1000 Fianna Way will become the ACHE Research Institute Health & Wellness Center.

ACHE is creating the largest research institution of any osteopathic school in the country.

The complex covers 318,000 square feet and was placed on the market in April 2018. About 400 Golden Living employees were working there at the time, down from 900 several years earlier. The corporate headquarters moved to Plano, Texas, in 2011. Golden Living donated equipment and furnishings. Included in the purchase were 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 almost 1,600 employees at hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren as well as affiliated physician clinics in west Arkansas and east Oklahoma.

Once liabilities were settled from the 2009 sale, the hospital's foundation had more than $60 million to invest. I know of foundations across the country that have benefited from selling hospitals, but can't think of any that have gotten a bigger bang for the buck than the one in Fort Smith.

Kyle Parker is the visionary who has worked to transform Fort Smith from the manufacturing center of the state to a place where science, technology and intellectual capital play leading roles. Five years ago, I first visited ACHE as its Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine welcomed its first class of 162 students.

"Those of us on the Degen Foundation board began asking what we could do to improve the health of people in this state," Parker told me at the time. "The thing we were told over and over is that we should begin a school of osteopathic medicine and then place our graduates in towns throughout Arkansas.

"We then began to visit schools across the country. We asked the heads of those schools what they would do differently if they were starting from scratch. That led us to build one of the most modern medical schools in the world."

The 102,000-square-foot building at Chaffee Crossing that houses Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine cost $34 million to complete, and Parker claims it's among the most technologically advanced facilities of its type. It's home to almost 600 medical students.

Parker's plans didn't stop there for the original 228-acre ACHE tract at Chaffee Crossing. An anonymous $15 million gift in 2017 allowed for construction of a second building. The 66,000-square-foot College of Health Science building is home to physical therapy, occupational therapy and physician assistant degree programs. ACHE employment is now more than 150 with an average salary of $160,000.

ACHE has since added a trail system, student housing and retail space at Chaffee Crossing. Parker calls the Golden Living purchase "game changer, part two."

At the time the purchase was announced, Talal El-Hefnawy, ACHE's research director, said: "This colossal addition to our highly impressive facilities and campus--and the dedication of a significant portion of the building to research space--will be beyond what many of us dreamed."

It was announced last fall that Thomas Yorio, an internationally known glaucoma researcher at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, had been hired as a consultant on the Fort Smith research center.

"Plans to add state-of-the-art research and clinical facilities within the same complex will allow for the translation of research from the bench to the bedside," Yorio says. "Besides the enormous effect it will have on the well-being of Fort Smith residents, it will also add a substantial economic impact."

Parker doesn't dream small dreams. A technology buff, he wrote the first artificial intelligence software ever granted a registered copyright for the legal profession while he was still in law school. In 1989, he digitized Arkansas legal case opinions along with statutory and regulatory laws and released a legal CD-ROM known as CaseBase. By 1994, he had created the first searchable legal information internet site.

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 in the country and most courts. In 2001, it sold to an Amsterdam-based publishing company.

Parker tired of the corporate rat race 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 whole health, much like Alice Walton is doing up the road in Bentonville.

There will be an art gallery on the first floor of the former Golden Living headquarters. There will be an extensive gym called the "movement lab." There will be teaching, demonstration and production kitchens.

Artists in residence will display their art throughout the building, which also will include a black-box theater. Gardens and walking trails will be a key part of the complex. Community engagement will be the focus of the first floor.

"There's no question that the visual and performing arts help serve as stress reducers," Parker said in a recent interview. "Our internal research has shown us that the introduction of art plays a role in lowering stress levels of our students. Therefore, it can do the same for our community. We'll continue our partnerships with art-related entities and emphasize art throughout our curriculum."

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 clear that he wants ACHE to partner with public school districts, churches, government agencies, hospitals, businesses and nonprofit entities to achieve his vision of a healthier west Arkansas.

"With space constraints a non-issue, we have the opportunity to change the bottom line when it comes to health," he says. "We'll have all the tools to work with our community to transform health and wellness."

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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