Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tech park tango, part 1

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2012 at 1:41 PM

Charles Dilks, consultant to the Tech Park Authority board
  • Charles Dilks, consultant to the Tech Park Authority board

The Little Rock Technology Park Authority got a big surprise last night: Though the board chose a terrible time (7:30 p.m., apparently to accommodate chair Dr. Mary Good’s schedule) and place (the Engineering and Information Technology Building at UALR, where Good works and which was a several-block hike in the dark from the closest accessible parking lot), there was substantial turnout. So many folks showed up, in fact, that, with the exception of Good, the board members in attendance had to stand for the hour and a half question time with consultant Charles Dilks.

It’s unclear what the hearings are supposed to accomplish. Questions were asked and answered, but there was no indication that the information presented by speakers would have any effect on the park Authority board's decision.

Residents of the John Barrow neighborhood, decked out in matching T-shirts and carrying professionally printed signs declaring the Barrow site the best, were out in force, and supporters of the Collins street site downtown had a sizeable faction there as well. Speaker after speaker brought up the advantages of their preferred site; in response, Dilks repeated what he sees as a crucial drawback to all of them: They’re too far from sponsors UALR and UAMS. (Arkansas Children’s Hospital is not a sponsor, though it is contributing money to the start-up effort.)

Dr. Good nodded her head in agreement as Dilks spoke of his misgivings, an indication that — at least in her mind and probably board member Dickson Flake’s — the Authority is still looking for a way to return to three two sites in Fair Park/Oak Forest suggested in the park feasibility study commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce in 2007 and the third in Forest Hills, suggested by Dickson Flake.* (It would have been surprising had Dilks, who contributed to that study, been uncritical of the alternatives.)

Though it went unremarked on, Dilks made several references to the need for the sponsor institutions to make a financial commitment to the park, as did the Angle Technology Group feasibility study, which said “the universities are the mostly likely sources” to lease at least half of the first building built at the park, with an annual “rental commitment” that would “range from $495,000 to $990,000 a year.”

UAMS’ representative on the board, Dr. Michael Douglas, and UAMS chancellor Dr. Daniel Rahn have said that beyond its $125,000 pledge to start-up help, its only capital investment in the park will be “intellectual.”

Skeptics of the tech park have long suspicioned that the promised "public-private partnership" rested almost entirely on a public investment, through $22 million in city sales tax money already and then an untold future amount, perhaps $30 million or more, from state institutions. The rising dominance of legislative fiscal hawks complicated that scenario already.

This morning, Dilks told the Times that as a matter of best practices, “sponsoring universities have to take leadership” in launching tech parks, in the form of “financial commitment, to space or providing land, and importantly putting activities in the park that are particularly attractive.” Ideally, UAMS and UALR would commit to a new research institute, but, he added, “as to what would make sense here, it would depend on the site.” Alternatively, the sponsors would have to attract a “big non-profit or major corporate sponsor,” which has yet to happen.

Last night, Dilks lamented that the land around the downtown site was unattractive, prompting Rett Tucker, a broker for the downtown parcel, to observe that “everything east of I-30 looked bad until a guy named Bill Clinton put his library there,” a move quickly followed by Heifer International’s headquarters. Later, Jim Moses, Tucker’s partner, noted former Acxiom chief Charles Morgan’s satisfaction with his decision to move his technology company downtown, where, Moses said, neighborhood of “world-class organizations” would surround the tech park.

Morgan, a friend of Good’s, is reportedly lobbying her for selection of the downtown site.

Pamela Brown Courtney, the realtor for the John Barrow site, told Dilks that his concern over the cost of site acquisition — the highest among the four — could be allayed. “We are negotiable,” she said. “We want a win-win.”

The Fair Park Residents Association last week sent a letter to Good saying that it would consider agreeing to housing the park if the Authority would commit to HUD rules on fair compensation for homeowners or renters who would have to move. W.J. Monagle, who lives at 1508 S. Taylor, said the letter, which has gotten some blowback from residents who didn’t attend the residents association at which the vote was taken to send the letter, “under no circumstances … represent my views.” He said there's a premium on middle income and affordable housing and urged "let's not destroy the neighborhoods we have like that."

There will be another public hearing at 5 p.m. today in the Legends Room of the Jack Stephens Center at UALR. Lots of parking there.

* The Angle report suggested a third site just west of the Forest Hills neighborhood, but Flake substituted Forest Hills for the Angle report site.

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