A warm reception was held on a very cold day for Baptist Health as the new owners of the oldest hospital in Arkansas.

Baptist Health leaders and local officials came together Tuesday for the grand-opening events outside the system’s newly acquired hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren.

The acquisition by the faith-based, nonprofit organization became final on Nov. 1. Banners with the Baptist Health logo have been placed over the Sparks logos in the past week. Sparks was a for-profit organization. With Mercy and now Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Baptist Health-Van Buren, all the hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren now are nonprofit organizations.

Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health, reminded the hundred or so employees and guests gathered at the main entrance of the Fort Smith hospital that Sparks has been a "trusted part of the community for 125 years, serving over 355,000 people in the 11-county area."

“Baptist Health will look for ways to preserve the Sparks name and its heritage here on this campus,” Wells said during the 10 a.m. ribbon cutting ceremony in front of the newly named Baptist Health-Fort Smith. “I’ve been so impressed and happy with the reception we’ve gotten here in Fort Smith from the physicians and the employees. I just can’t tell you how encouraging it’s been for us and they’ve made this a very smooth transition.”

Another ribbon-cutting event was held at 1 p.m. outside Baptist Health-Van Buren.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around Baptist Health aligning with the outstanding reputation of this team of dedicated physicians and caregivers,” Wells added in a news release. “We hope to compliment the quality of care that the River Valley has come to expect.”

Harrison Dean, who has been with Baptist Health for 35 years, is now region president of Western Arkansas/Eastern Oklahoma Region and will oversee the system’s hospitals in Fort Smith and Van Buren as well as affiliated physician clinics. Dean also will have responsibilities to align the region with Baptist Health’s resources.

“I’m really proud to be a part of Fort Smith,” Dean said at the Fort Smith hospital event. “It is a memorable day for Baptist Health to join the oldest hospital in the state of Arkansas and bring that hospital and the system into the Baptist Health family.”

Dean previously served as a senior vice president and as administrator of Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock. He was also instrumental in the construction of Baptist Health Medical Center-Conway, which opened in 2016.

“I’m humbled to think of the opportunities we have for the state’s first hospital in Fort Smith joining Baptist Health,” Dean added. “As we serve more people, Baptist Health will continue to provide faith-based health care that strengthens communities we serve and encourages healthy lifestyle changes, which is consistent with our belief that we are more than a business — we are a healing ministry.”

In July, Baptist Health entered into a definitive purchase agreement with Sparks Health System.

“We’ve been looking forward to this day,” said Brandon Bullard, COO and vice president of finance for Fort Smith and Van Buren. “Our approximately 1,600 employees have been counting the days to Baptist Health’s arrival. Cutting the ribbon today is just another exciting step in this amazing journey.”

Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, explained that health care is a “key factor” in economic development and thanked Baptist Health for investing in Fort Smith.

“It really is the foundation whenever companies and people are looking to locate in a market,” Allen said. “When I learned Baptist Health was coming to Fort Smith, a couple things came to mind, and that is stability and world-class health care.”

Sparks Health System has now seen three different owners in the past 10 years and this is the second new owner in four years. It was acquired by Health Management Associates in 2009 and then by Community Health Systems in 2014. Baptist announced in July their intention to acquire Sparks.

The health care industry employs about 10,000 people with about $1 billion in economic impact in the west central Arkansas-east Oklahoma region, Allen added.

“Timing is everything,” Allen said. “Fort Smith is on the rise and Baptist Health will help us get there faster rather than later.”

Baptist Health is based in Little Rock with more than 200 access points and about 11,000 employees operating 11 hospitals.