The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (May 15) voted 6-0 with one recusal (Director Don Hutchings) to extend a waiver of building permit and inspection fees to the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education.
Director Hutchings recused because he serves on the board of the Degen Foundation, which provided the financial resources that made the ACHE possible.
The city’s waiver will provide ACHE with a $34,686 benefit in exchange for an estimated $14.8 million project that will add 30 faculty positions with annual pay, on average, of $100,000 each.
In a memo recommending the waiver, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said the action supports the Board’s goal of pursuing economic development and job creation by “helping to grow the employment base in the city” and by expanding “a new, significant employment center in our community.”
The new facility will be 66,000 square feet, and it will be located at 7006 Chad Colley Boulevard. The purpose will be as a classroom and laboratory facility to house the College of Health Sciences, which will feature graduate level programs in physician assistant studies, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. Based on the latest construction bids, the total building and equipment cost will approach $18 million, and programs at the facility should begin in 2020.
The city extended a similar waiver in March of 2015 when the ACHE launched construction of its College of Osteopathic Medicine, which opened to the first class of 150 students in August of 2017. ACHE President and CEO Dr. Kyle Parker, in asking for the waiver, said the osteopathic facility created “as many as 75 high-paying jobs,” adding that in the last three years, the ACHE has grown to a staff of 86 “with another 25 professionals whose employment will be associated with the enrollment of the second full class of student doctors in August.”
Parker continued: “Since 2015 the full-service medical clinic being operated by Mercy Health has opened and the Phase I of student housing with 84 apartment units has been at capacity. Phase II of student housing is nearing completion with another 80 apartment units already committed to the incoming class of medical students. Phase III of student housing will begin construction soon in conjunction with a mixed-use retail service area with a 2019 completion date.”
Fort Smith resident David Harris spoke against the waiver on Tuesday, stating that while the college was a “wonderful thing for our community, they (ACHE) have the money. We don’t,” emphasizing “we” meant the city of Fort Smith. Speaking to Harris’s objection, Director Tracy Pennartz said she looked at “the quality of the project, and the number of jobs generated” in her decision-making, adding that the high-paying positions are “the kind of jobs we want here in Fort Smith.”
“I think allowing a waiver as an economic development incentive for that type of project is well worth the money spent,” Pennartz added.