The Southern Arkansas University System Board of Trustees approved a lease agreement with Dawson Hotel Management LLC to construct a Best Western Plus hotel at U.S. Highway 82 and the old McNeil highway, with groundbreaking expected to be sometime this summer. This action was taken during the Board’s regular meeting on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.
Dr. Trey Berry, president of SAU, presented trustees with the lease agreement, which was completed after the Board authorized Berry to negotiate for land use that would benefit SAU and the community.
Dawson Hotel Management will lease the property from SAU for a period of 50 years, with annual payments going toward scholarships. The lease includes a 14-acre tract for constructing a 60-80 room Best Western Plus. Berry said the hotel would contain a meeting space and options for developing future amenities on the site is also a component of the lease agreement.
Dawson Hotel Management will be responsible for constructing and maintaining the property and plans to use local subcontractors as much as possible. “This will bring in more benefit and resources to our community,” Berry said.
“This is a win-win for SAU and the Magnolia and Columbia County communities,” Berry enthused. “We feel confident in what this will mean for SAU and the community in the future.”
Trustees voted on and approved the lease agreement.
In other business, trustees presented outgoing Board member Therral Story with a resolution honoring his years of service. Story served from 2016 to 2022 and saw many significant advancements at SAU and SAU Tech. These advancements include 26 new facilities or renovations on the Magnolia campus; the successful and first comprehensive fund-raising campaign in the history of SAU, raising $29.7 million and touching every area of campus; establishing 42 new academic programs at SAU, including Healthcare Administration, Engineering and Cybersecurity; and construction of the new residence hall for the Fire Academy at SAU Tech. Berry called Story a blessing and thanked him for his service and dedication.
“This University means a lot to me,” Story said in accepting the resolution. “I am very proud of this great organization.”
In his report, Berry highlighted SAU’s overall success in dealing with COVID-19. “The last two years have been very challenging,” he said, noting the safety policies enacted by the Risk Management Task Force. “The real heroes are the nurses in our Health Services Office. They have worked day and night without complaint to keep us all safe.”
He highlighted encouraging numbers, noting that SAU started the spring semester with 169 positive COVID cases. The University has only one positive student case and zero positive cases among faculty and staff. “This is a great sign,” said Berry.
SAU looks forward to positive enrollment numbers in the fall. Berry said, “As of now, undergraduate applications and acceptances are up from last year, as are those for graduate studies. Campus tours are up, and overall, our housing is up for the fall,” he said. “These are wonderful things to see.”
He pointed to the upcoming SOAR Sustainability Conference on April 20. The conference will offer a full day of sessions focused on actions toward building a sustainable future. Dr. Robin Sronce, dean of the Rankin College of Business, and her team have organized the conference, which has attracted several sponsors. “This is a new venture, one we hope can be repeated,” Berry said.
Berry updated trustees on the College of Education and Human Performance, boasting 53 student teachers in 28 school districts. Berry highlighted Casey Loftin, a senior Elementary Education major with an emphasis in STEM. Loftin, a Jacksonville native, has been student-teaching third grade at Central Elementary in Magnolia. After graduating from SAU, Loftin hopes to teach third-grade social studies.
Berry also noted Simone Leal, a teacher intern from Portugal. “It is amazing to see so many of our students out there in so many districts.”
SAU’s Theatre Department is partnering with Magnolia High School for an upcoming production of Guys and Dolls. “We are excited about this major musical and our relationship with MHS,” Berry said.
Turning to athletics, Berry praised the new leadership in place for many Mulerider programs and noted that spring sports “are doing really well. Some of them are No. 1 in the GAC.”
Berry spoke of the “human” side of SAU athletics. Junior entrepreneurial finance major Marko Nikoliuk and freshman Inna Serukhova are from Ukraine. They are balancing sports and studies with concern for their families back home.
“They are holding up remarkably well,” Berry said of the two student-athletes, “and we have offered them all the assistance we can. SAU is their home now.”
In other business, Dr. David Lanoue presented several academic changes for the trustees to approve. These included: the creation of a MAT SPED K-12 track; a new Certificate of Proficiency in Education; a name change in the BFA Art and Design: Communication Design degree to BFA Art and Design: Graphic Design; addition of a new certificate program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages; adding a new Computer Science-Data Science Option and adding a new BS Mathematics Data Science Option.
After approving personnel recommendations in the executive session, the Board adjourned.