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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tech Park Authority sets site hearings

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 5:38 PM

MIXED MESSAGE: Jay Chesshir (left) said residential areas remain off the table, but Michael Douglas commented that current site finalists are not the be all end all.
  • MIXED MESSAGE: Jay Chesshir (left) said residential areas remain 'off the table,' but Michael Douglas commented that current site finalists are not the 'be all end all.'
The Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board with little debate this afternoon set public hearings on the four sites identified by a consultant as the best among those submitted as sites for the city-financed building intended to lure technology companies to town.

A bit of ambiguity remained about whether the three residential neighborhoods between UAMS and UALR originally identified as prime locations for the project were out of consideration for all time. This arose during a brief public comment period.

First the Authority, with Chair Mary Good absent, accepted Dilks' recommendation and set meetings to hear from the consultant, site owners and the public at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the UALR Engineering and Information Technology Building and at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Jack Stephens Center at UALR. At Authority member Dickson Flake's suggestion, forrmer U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, now working for Blue Cross, will "facilitate" the discussion. He agreed to do so, Flake said, on the condition that he strictly be a moderator, not an expert on the project or sites and with the understanding that technical questions would be answered by others.

Four sites remained after consultant Charles Dilks' study: 1) commercial property adjacent to UALR at Asher and University; 2) undeveloped acreage on John Barrow Road; 3) a 12-story former Alltel buildiing in Riverdale and 4) mostly unused acreage controlled by World Services for the Blind on the east side of I-30 near the Clinton Library. A significant amount of support has developed for the downtown site, but Chair Mary Good has been highly critical.

Dr. Michael Douglas of UAMS, an Authority member, commented that he had not been "overwhelmed by the level of enthusiasm" in Dilks' report. Indeed, Dilks noted shortcomings in all the sites and said location was critical, perhaps so much that other alternatives might be considered. The four finalists, Douglas said, are "not the be all, end all."

That led to a direct question from Phyllis Johnson, a resident of the neighborhoods originally targeted. Is the Forest Hills neighborhood along I-630 no longer being considered? If not, she said, "tell me now."

Authority member Jay Chesshir, leader of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, which led the city sales tax drive that is to provide $24 million for the project, recited the terms of a letter June 21 from Mary Good in which she told the City Board of Directors that the residential neighborhoods were "off the table" unless a "substantial" portion of the neighborhood indicated they supported the neighborhood as a tech park site and communicated that desire to City Directors Joan Adock or Ken Richards.

"At this point in time," Chesshir said, "to my knowledge that has not taken place."

But the Authority members were silent when another resident of the neighborhood, Daniel Hopwood, asked directly if there was a possibility the neighborhoods could be brought up again. He argued that taking of the neighborhood wouldn't be right unless 100 percent were in favor. Some absentee landlords, some with several recently acquired parcels, have expressed an interest in selling for the tech park, but apparently haven't formally expressed anything to city directors to date.

There's no deadline for choosing a site at this point and should the Authority find all finalists wanting, presumably the residential neighborhoods could be in play again, though it would require the Authority overcoming stated objections from the financier, the City Board.

The Authority meets monthly and Chesshir said there was a possibility the current batch could be reduced to a smaller number of finalists. Much more research is to be done on all before a decision, he said.

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