Contract awarded for health college funded by tobacco
The University of Arkansas board of trustees approved contractors Friday for two of the first projects fueled by the $1.6 billion tobacco settlement.
The $15 million contract for the College of Public Health was awarded to Nabholz Construction, and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. will build the $25 million biosciences research building. Both projects were established by the Tobacco Settlement Proceeds Act of 2000 approved by voters in November. They will be under construction on the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences campus.
Not everyone approves of the location, however.
A group of preservation activists for the Central High Neighborhood Association, led by Rep. John Lewellen, D-Little Rock, made a last-minute plea to the board Friday, asking that Westside Junior High School be renovated to house the College of Public Health.
Lewellen said the college would help the area economically, continuing to bring business into the Central High neighborhood.
The circa 1919 building, which has 83,000 square feet of space, is adjacent to Arkansas Children's Hospital, a considerable distance from the UAMS campus. It has been vacant for many years and would require extensive renovation.
Dr. I. Dodd Wilson, chancellor of UAMS, said, "I wish someone would use that building, but I don't think that the College of Public Health is the best use for it."
Bill Asti, a Little Rock architect and economist who accompanied Lewellen Friday, said a cost estimate made several years ago placed renovation at $100 per square foot using a volunteer workforce.
"A building of that nature would be more expensive to renovate and bring up to code," he said.
Lewellen requested a vote on the location Friday. The board voted 9-1 in favor of building the college on the UAMS campus, following the recommendation of Dr. Fay Boozman, director of the Arkansas Department of Health. Dr. Joe Hargrove, a UA trustee, voted against it.
The college is under the administration and operation of UAMS. Every aspect of the school's creation, from location to curriculum, is orchestrated by a 14-member committee of doctors, dentists, nurses and public-health workers from UAMS and the Department of Health.
Lewellen said he first heard about the decision in a May 7 letter from Boozman. The letter followed the committee's recommendation of UAMS as home to the college.
Dr. Joe Bates, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Health, said, "[The location] was given very careful, deliberate analysis."
Lewellen said the decision demonstrates a narrow-minded approach by the board of trustees.
"They made a decision, a narrow-minded decision, based on the decision of a few government employees," Lewellen said.
"Their minds were already made up."
The board's vote Friday will result in four stories being added to the Education 3 building at UAMS to house the college. The Education 3 building was built to expand to nine stories.
The college initially will offer a master's degree in public health and eventually could offer master's degrees in epidemiology, environmental health sciences and biostatistics. Seminars also will be offered to health care professionals.
Bates said the partnership between UAMS and the Department of Health will grow as they exchange faculty and students.
"We'll wear a footpath between our building and the College of Public Health," he said.