Article Courtesy: Talk Business & Politics

More than 11 years ago this fella told me about a new Fort Smith-based organization of which he was certain would do great and transformative things. One of the few areas in which I excel as a journalist is being skeptical. My BS meter moved toward the red the more this guy talked.

It’s rare for something to blow past expectations. It’s even more rare when that thing depends on a lot of people doing the right things to overcome many hoops and hurdles, being a step ahead of trends and being able to pivot when the plan meets new opportunities.

But it’s not rare for me to be wrong.

My tepid defense is it was difficult at the time to be optimistic. Kind Reader may remember that more than 10-15 years ago was not a bright point in Fort Smith’s history. The metro manufacturing sector, thanks to being callously abandoned by Whirlpool Corp., was in significant decline. Our once strong and independent Sparks Hospital was sold to an out-of-state shareholder driven enterprise more interested in quarterly results than quality care. The 188th Fighter Wing manned flying mission – The A-10 Warthog – was leaving. Fort Smith was in the process of being hit with a federal consent decree related to sewer system failures. U.S. Marshals Museum fundraising seemed stalled. Racial issues and mistrust were boiling up in the Fort Smith Police Department. The City of Fort Smith faced budget and pay cuts.

Kyle Parker was a mix of optimistic, confident and determined. He was working with a group of folks – including the late Jim Walcott who challenged Parker and others to “move the needle” and reverse the city’s fortunes – to bring to life what is now the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) and its Research Institute and Wellness Center. The osteopathic medical school, which now includes a school of occupational therapy and a school of physical therapy, is now an anchor development in the Fort Smith metro economy.

Parker was most certainly nonplussed about my skepticism of more than 11 years ago. He and several other folks have moved the needle so much that we’ve not seen the needle for a few years now. (Link here for a November 2022 story about the ACHE beginnings.)

What follows will fail to wholly encapsulate how ACHE has and will continue to benefit the Fort Smith metro, western Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma, but I’m hopeful it will provide some measure of import.

The development began with 200 acres at Chaffee Crossing and has grown to 650 acres. It’s responsible for the construction of more than 4,000 rooftops, and employment of more than 250 folks with average annual salaries of $160,000. ACHE has built 850,000 square feet of facilities since March 2015. More than 1,000 students are enrolled in the college and its schools, with about 700 on campus, and now more than 800 alumni.

Parker, the ACHE president and CEO, was kind enough to accept a challenge from the former skeptic and outlined the top five ACHE impacts.

First is the economic impact. The ACHE campus and its different programs have an estimated $600 million a year benefit to the regional economy, with the research center adding another $265 million.

Second, and part of the economic impact, are those 250-plus professors and researchers and top admin folks who all have an average annual salary of $160,000.

“Those are jobs, those are people you’re not going to be able to move to Mexico or another state,” Parker said, referring of course to the good-paying manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the past 20 years.

Parker said ACHE has been able to recruit some of the best instructors in the nation because they wanted to be part of what he believes is a new approach and culture.

“It’s all about the transformation in health care. … To be able to give back is such a payoff. And so, yes, I really think that’s a lot of it. There is something exciting about being able to mold the clay,” he said.

Another part of the top five are the academic programs available to people in and out of the region, including three doctoral programs and two master’s degree offerings.

Parker also includes the physician impact. He estimates a $2 million economic benefit for each new doctor hired by area medical organizations. That impact also includes having a larger pool of doctors available for hospitals and clinics to recruit. The osteopathic college each year receives around 6,000 applications for 150 seats, and on average 67% of enrolled students come from the Fort Smith service region.

“That is very intentional on our part. … because they are familiar with the area and are more likely to want to stick around when they graduate,” Parker said.

Students not from the area may also decide to stay.

“We had a kid from Chicago want to stay here, to stay in this area. So that’s when you really feel great about what you are doing. It says an awful lot about this community, and people tend to lose sight of that,” Parker said.

Rounding out Parker’s list is the research center impact. At some point in the near future the institute will have five active research centers related to oncology, genetics and personalized medicine, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and obesity. The institute will also include by July 2025 a center for aviation and aerospace neuroscience that is expected to work with the foreign pilot training center at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.

This essay does not include details on impressive ACHE health outcomes outreach programs with regional public school students, affiliated commercial developments, and affiliated quality of life developments that are open to the public.

The skepticism is muted, but I’m now at a loss to fully appreciate what’s next. The amazing numbers and progress and achievements outlined in the paragraphs above are just the first steps of this fledgling educational institution; it’s the college’s rookie decade, so to speak.

There are more needles to move and more clay to mold, but far fewer skeptics to convert.