Several hundred people gathered on the front steps of the new $45 million Delta Dental of Tennessee Building on the Memphis campus of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center today for a “floss cutting” and grand opening of the state-of-the-art building that will house the College of Dentistry.
The building at 875 Union Avenue has been almost a decade in development, design, and construction. State legislators, state officials, UT System President Randy Boyd, leaders of area hospitals and health care institutions, elected officials, business leaders, faculty, staff, and students joined the festive 1 p.m. event.
“This is a great day for Memphis. This is a great day for the state of Tennessee,” said UTHSC Chancellor Peter Buckley, MD. “Today is a dream come true. It is a transformation not just in the building and in the new training environment. It is a transformation that will benefit the health care of Tennessee.”
The 68,000-square-foot building increases space for training Tennessee’s dental workforce and expands facilities to treat patients from the Mid-South. The building opens as the UTHSC College of Dentistry is undertaking a $53 million project, as a part of the state’s five-year, $94 million Healthy Smiles Initiative, to increase access to dentists and dental care across Tennessee.
The new building adjoins the existing Dunn Dental Building. Together, they make up the Delta Dental of Tennessee Oral Health Complex. The name of the new building and complex honors the outstanding support from Delta Dental of Tennessee and its Chief Executive Officer Philip Wenk, DDS. Dr. Wenk is a 1973 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; the immediate past chair of the UT Foundation Board of Directors; the chair of the UTHSC Advisory Board; and a 1977 graduate of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Dentistry.
Delta Dental of Tennessee provided $6.3 million for construction costs and $1.4 million for equipment for the building. Generous support from the state and other donations ensured that the modern building is a reality.
“Holding a floss-cutting ceremony for a new building is always exciting,” said James Ragain, DDS, PhD, MS, FICD, FACD, dean of the UTHSC College of Dentistry, as he opened the ceremony. “But this event is even more than just the new building. The Delta Dental of Tennessee Building represents our commitment to our students, patients, faculty, staff, and the entire state of Tennessee. Our mission at the College of Dentistry is to actively advance oral health care through excellence in education, innovation in research, skilled clinical care, and engagement and public service.”
He said the building is an important part in fulfilling this mission. “In these new spaces, we will train students to provide the best clinical care possible to the citizens of Tennessee,” he said. “Our facilities will support faculty research, in our clinics we will treat patients. This new building will be our home base for a statewide campus. This new building will support access to care all across our state, from the clinics here in Memphis, to the farthest corners of Tennessee in Bristol and Kingsport, and to all the communities in between.”
The Delta Dental of Tennessee Building houses a clinic for patients with special needs; an expanded faculty practice for treating patients, including the uninsured and underinsured; and dental technique labs for first- and second-year students to hone their skills. The UTHSC College of Dentistry, the third oldest public college of dentistry in the country, trains 75% of Tennessee’s dentists.
Dean Ragain said the additional space will allow the college to reach its eventual goal to expand its class size to 130 students over the next five years to meet the anticipated demand for dentists in Tennessee and the surrounding region, particularly in underserved rural areas. This goal is one key facet of the Healthy Smiles Initiative, which also includes expansion of dental student rotations at UTHSC-sponsored clinics in areas of greatest need across the state, as well as new dental residency training sites in Kingsport, Knoxville, and Jackson.
In attendance were Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health Ralph Alvarado, MD, FACP, and former Commissioner of Health Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. UT System President Randy Boyd thanked them for their support of UTHSC and its statewide efforts to improve oral health across Tennessee. “Now, you might think the commissioner for the Department of Health has the whole state to deal with, why would he spend a day in Memphis at the Health Science Center opening the new Delta Dental Building,” President Boyd said. “Well, (more than) 70% of all the dentists in the state of Tennessee are produced right here in Memphis at this facility. If you’re going to affect rural health care, dental care is a critical part of rural health care. It’s going to happen right here.”
President Boyd, Chancellor Buckley, and Dean Ragain thanked Dr. Wenk for his contributions to the UT System, UTHSC, and to the new building. “I think Phil is one of those people that you meet and you think, ‘I wish I’d met you earlier in my life,’” President Boyd said. “My life has been so much better having known him, and I feel like he’s a friend and a partner. In the University of Tennessee, we have a slogan that we came up with, it says, ‘Everywhere you Look, UT,’ and it’s just true. I will say, everywhere you look also Phil is there making a difference. We appreciate you Phil for everything.”
Dr. Wenk is “a force for good in Tennessee,” Chancellor Buckley said. “Phil takes great joy in impacting lives, not just in dental care, but through the whole constellation of care. And he is the embodiment of our new vision, which is ‘Healthy Tennesseans and Thriving Communities.’ That is the passion that fuels Phil. Phil and his wife, Brenda, are extraordinary humanitarians and they are infused with a passion for giving back to not just their community, but communities all across the great state of Tennessee.”
Dr. Wenk said the credit belongs to his company and its board, which never wavered in supporting his dream to have an elegant dental building at the prominent location on the Memphis campus.
“My company deserves the credit for this,” he said. “The dentists deserve the credit for this, the students deserve the credit for this, and UT Health Science Center, which is now going to be the center of education for the state of Tennessee even though it’s in Memphis, they deserve this every single day. And I hope that we continue this kind of progress, because there are too many people out there in the world who need to be taken care of and it’s this organization’s responsibility to do that.”