First, it was culture that Alice Walton brought to northwest Arkansas. The opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville on Nov. 11, 2011 followed by the debut of the Momentary in early 2020 shortly before the onset of the pandemic–caused people to think about the region in a new light.
Now comes health. Early last year, Walton announced the creation of the Whole Health Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on health care. It will be housed on the Crystal Bridges campus with construction beginning later this year.
In March, Walton announced plans to build a sister institution–an independent nonprofit medical school known as the Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Construction is expected to begin next year. The initial class of students will start in 2024 and graduate in 2028.
Walton personally recruited Dr. Tracy Gaudet as the institute’s executive director. Gaudet previously served as executive director of the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation. She also has worked at the University of Arizona and for the Duke University Health System.
“To build this medical school from the ground up and integrate these philosophies and approaches to health and well-being into the mainstream curriculum is . . . nobody has ever done it,” Gaudet told Talk Business & Politics. “What I’ve learned very quickly is the degree of passion and commitment Alice Walton has for making this approach available and accessible for all people and all communities. This is her drive, and I’m on board with that. It’s a huge undertaking, and it’s going to take some time. But it has to impact every person and every community.
“That’s her vision, and that’s what she’s committed to doing. And so are we. Covid has shined a very bright light on some significant issues of the limitations of our current health-care system. I’m a physician. We educate physicians very well in some things. It’s a system designed to find problems and fix them. If someone has appendicitis, we cut out their appendix. We have cured them. The shortcoming is that lifestyle choices and the way we live our lives drive the vast majority of chronic conditions.”
Future doctors will be trained to focus on preventive health practices and overall well-being in addition to disease treatment. This approach will include nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.
Gaudet hopes the initial class will include between 40 and 50 students. She and Walton already have recruited a founding dean from Texas, a vice dean for education from Wisconsin and an executive vice dean from North Carolina.
Gaudet plans to work closely with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest at Fayetteville along with health-care systems in the region such as Arkansas Children’s Northwest, Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas, Northwest Medical Center, Washington Regional Medical Center and the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks.
The medical community is growing quickly in northwest Arkansas. UAMS, based at Little Rock, recently announced it will build an $85 million orthopedics and sports medicine center in the region. Meanwhile, a growing medical corridor near the intersection of Interstate 49 and Don Tyson Parkway at Springdale now includes multimillion-dollar facilities for Arkansas Children’s Northwest and Highlands Oncology Group.
A 76,000-square-foot medical office building for Little Rock-based USAble Corp., a subsidiary of Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, is being built in the corridor. Also under construction is a five-story 80,000-square-foot facility known as the Center for Children’s Health and Wellness.
Alice Walton’s emphasis on integrative health care is a natural complement to the focus of brothers Tom and Steuart Walton on outdoor recreational opportunities. It’s all about personal health. Tom and Steuart are the sons of Jim Walton. Alice is their aunt.
Tom and Steuart are determined to make northwest Arkansas the mountain biking capital of the country. During the past couple of years, the region reported a 10 percent increase in cycling and a 2 percent increase in pedestrian activity on its multi-use and natural-surface trails. Northwest Arkansas now has almost 500 miles of trails. Much of the trail construction has been funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
I see northwest Arkansas offering something along the lines of what coastal areas in the Pacific Northwest offer–good jobs and cultural opportunities combined with a focus on personal health and abundant outdoor recreational venues. It’s something few other places in the middle of the country can do.
As I’ve noted in a series of columns on the northwest Arkansas economic boom, business and civic leaders here have figured out that economic development in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century is about much more than recruiting businesses. It’s about recruiting talented, highly educated people who could live anywhere.
I see few obstacles to the region becoming one of the country’s most desirable places to live. For northwest Arkansas to achieve its full potential, however, these things also need to happen:
• Recruit high-quality candidates for public office and then see to it that those candidates have the resources they need to be elected. The overall quality of legislators in Arkansas is perhaps the worst it has ever been. For at least the next several election cycles, I expect rural areas of the state to elect more than their share of far-right ideologues focused on divisive social issues that aren’t the business of state government.
Northwest Arkansas voters can offset this with legislators who concentrate on the real business of government: spending tax dollars as wisely as possible and making sure services are delivered efficiently. It doesn’t matter if these legislators are Republicans or Democrats. They just need to be smart and focused on the right things.
• Pick up the trash, literally. People moving from other states tell me how shocked they are at the amount of trash along roadways and streams in Arkansas. Civic organizations should adopt stretches of highway and adopt streams through programs offered by the Arkansas Department of Transportation and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. To attract those highly educated residents, we’re going to have to clean up our act.
• Increase the number of high-end outdoors outfitters to take advantage of all the Ozarks offer. Tom and Steuart Walton’s mountain biking focus is important. Yet there also must be better support for those who flyfish for trout and paddle mountain streams for smallmouth bass, along with rock climbers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers and those who want guided tours to see the elk in nearby Newton County.
The region offers an abundance of recreational potential. It simply needs to be better packaged for the high-income people moving into northwest Arkansas who aren’t yet familiar with the state.
• See to it that those with capital in Washington and Benton counties invest some of that money in Carroll County; Eureka Springs, to be exact. People are in search of authenticity these days, and Eureka Springs offers that, unlike the tacky glitter of Branson, Mo.
Eureka Springs has the potential to again be among the top attractions in this part of the country, but some of its jewels need to be polished. That polishing will take money. It’s money that exists in Washington and Benton counties. A reinvigorated Eureka Springs will give people leaving the West Coast and East Coast yet another reason to move to northwest Arkansas.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.