OneHealth Education Group of Little Rock, the company working with Lyon College of Batesville to create Arkansas’ first dental and veterinary schools, said Thursday it has agreed to purchase the Heifer International campus in Little Rock.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Heifer announced Tuesday that it was selling the property and planning to lease two floors of the four-story main building under a long-term lease. The lease will allow them to stay there at least 20 years.
OneHealth and Lyon plan to use the 28-acre campus at 1 World Ave. for the Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences, which would operate the dental and veterinary programs. Arkansas Business in April was first to report Lyon’s plans to create the graduate programs and put them in Little Rock.
Lyon says its Institute of Health Sciences will occupy most of the campus, which includes a 94,000-SF building, under a lease agreement that’s being worked out now. College President Melissa Taverner said classes could start as early as fall 2024.
Heifer said it was selling in response to its staff’s desire for hybrid work schedules. The nonprofity has about 165 employees in Little Rock.
The Clinton Foundation will remain a tenant, too, and the purchase will not affect the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s plan to build a $9 million, 20,000-SF music center on land it was leasing from Heifer. The event venue space at Heifer will honor all bookings through the end of 2023.
The Heifer campus is an ideal site for the new schools not only because OneHealth and all the tenants have education-focused missions but because it will help the private liberal arts college attract students and faculty later on, Taverner said.
“To be associated so intimately with such an impressive building, I mean, the Heifer campus is beautiful and it's well thought out. Every time I set foot on that campus, I'm like, ‘Wow, this is how you do this,’” she said. “And so, to have that environment in which people can learn, in which they can interact meaningfully, is going to be really, really important. So, in terms of recruiting for the two professional schools, I think that's going to be a slam dunk."
Merritt Dake of OneHealth added that Little Rock's East Village area, where the campus is located, is ideal because it’s an “up-and-coming" part of the city. Dake, the former CEO of the dental health care provider Rock Dental Brands of Little Rock, leads the firm alongside President Frazier Edwards, a former president of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association.
The firm plans to obtain funding for the purchase through a combination of financing and philanthropic support, he said. Further details will be released later. The Heifer campus is in an opportunity zone, meaning new investments in it could qualify for preferential tax treatment.
There also aren’t many more details on the vet and dental programs — including startup costs and enrollment — available now, because they're contingent on approval from accrediting bodies. The college applied in March for approval from regional accreditor the Higher Learning Commission and expects to hear back from the HLC in 2023. After that, Lyon can apply for further accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education.
Edwards said the Heifer building will be renovated to be conducive to interdisciplinary learning and to include labs, but specifics on those renovations also aren’t available this early in the planning process.
Taverner said Lyon College has been looking to be more than what it’s traditionally been — an undergraduate institution — for the past couple of years. That’s how long it’s been considering adding graduate programs.
The reason is twofold. There is the “demographic cliff” that has caused declining enrollment in undergraduate programs. Lyon also wants to better appeal to and serve its undergraduate students, as well as play to its strengths that include preparing them for STEM careers, she said.
The new schools will do all that, Taverner said, and help Lyon reach more students.
Other pieces of the expanded mission include the planned launch of a capital campaign and the college opening a Little Rock office on Capitol Avenue.
“We're in Batesville, 90 miles away, in a lovely little town and lovely little sort of rural region. And that's really nice. But it's very hard sometimes to explain to people that you've got a really good school in a place that they're not very familiar with,” Taverner said. “And so we're not moving Lyon College to Little Rock. We do want people to know that Lyon College is a thing. And it gives us a little bit more visibility.”
That office will support the development of the schools, marketing, admissions and its working with OneHealth.
OneHealth executives said its partnership with the college allows both organizations to focus on their areas of expertise.
“We realized really quickly that everything that we could do, we could do better together, that we could bring our resources together, that we could collaborate together and that we could really build something special,” Taverner said. “OneHealth typically does not operate in the sort of higher ed space, and we don't operate in the business development space. There are points of intersection where we're learning from each other all the time.”
Dake said that in addition to developing quality health providers, OneHealth would like to reduce the debt burden carried by many professionals after graduation. He also sees an opportunity to provide care to underserved communiites.
Lyon has partnered with the Academy for Advancing Leadership of Atlanta and the Animal Policy Group of Scottsdale, Arizona, as well, in developing curriculum and preparing for accreditation.
OneHealth and Lyon are also looking to collaborate further with Heifer in some way.
Arkansas has the fewest veterinarians per 100,000 people in the country, according to a study released in November by veterinarians.org. It is also second to last in oral health compared to all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to a 2021 ranking by WalletHub.
“So we believe that just those numbers alone show that there's a great need for access to care,” Edwards with OneHealth said.
He also cited the 240 students — 120 pursuing each profession — who qualify for the Arkansas Health Education Grant program that covers a dwindling portion of their tuition for the out-of-state schools that are currently their only options.
Most students continue living and working as professionals where they finish their education and training, he said.
“The likelihood of getting those students back to the state is very, very small. So the more that we can create that pipeline, recruiting from here, educating them here, training them here, the more likely we are to keep them here,” Edwards said. “And that has a lot of different benefits to it, whether that is just access to care, quality of life and better communities as well as economic development.”