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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Support from on high for downtown tech park

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Grant Tennille, director of AEDC
  • Grant Tennille, director of AEDC

Developers Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses are proving to be formidable when it comes to gathering support for the downtown site they're pushing for the Little Rock Technology Park. In the past month or so, the park Authority board has been lobbied by former Axciom head Charles Morgan; Richard Howe of Inuvo (formerly of Acxiom), who wrote the board that he was "seriously considering" moving the headquarters of his New York technology firm to Little Rock if the downtown site were chosen, and numerous others in favor of the site on Collins Street.

Now, Gov. Mike Beebe has made a politic semi-endorsement and Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director Grant Tennille has weighed in in support of the downtown site.

A email from Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample:

The governor says that for a city like Little Rock, downtown should be given strong consideration whenever it is a viable option for any project, in the hopes of continued re-vitalization. However, he is not trying to interject himself into the Tech Park discussion and tell city leaders where they should locate it. That remains their call.

Less ambiguous was Tennille, who in a telephone interview this morning said locating the technology park, which is to be built with $22 million in city tax dollars and fed by research from park partners the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, would be a boon for Little Rock and Arkansas if located at the state's "front door": downtown. "We've made extraordinary progress in downtown revitalization and a tech park would be just another feather in that cap," Tennille said.

Downtown is now impressive enough, he said, that he sees a "transformation" in the thinking of visiting companies "between the time they land [at the airport] and the time they get to our office." With the tech park, "when companies fly in and are driving down the interstate to our building they're going to look out the window and say, 'Wow.' "

Tennille stressed that he has no say in the matter. "We have tried to stay out of the site selection process," he said. "I have enormous respect and no stronger allies than [UAMS chancellor] Dr. Rahn and Dr. [Mary] Good." Good is chair of the Tech Park Authority board.

The first sites the Authority studied — all residential — were between UALR and UAMS, and two had been recommended to the board by a study in which Dilks took part. The third was recommended by Authority board member Dickson Flake. Building on any of the three would likely have required the city to use its power of eminent domain to require reluctant homeowners to sell, and the city board — which has no real authority over the Tech Park board — enacted an ordinance last fall directing them to look elsewhere for property.

A Jan. 2 letter to the board from consultant Charles Dilks was critical of the proposed downtown site as well as the two other commercial sites no under consideration, one south of UALR at Asher and University and the other on John Barrow Road, and contained his "admonition" that the board should make sure there are no other sites more suitable. But members of the City Board of Directors on Tuesday night insisted the Authority has assured it the residential sites are "off the table." These developments moved Tennille to comment.

"If we had a perfect world," Tennille said, it would be great to develop the park on a site equidistant from UALR and UAMS and would "break down the barriers to collaboration." But this is the real world, he said, and the debate needs to adjust to that.

The downtown site is the least favored, if comments made by the Authority board are any indication, because of its size — 10 acres — and no written commitments for sale of contiguous land and by what is perceived to be an access problem.

"Downtown is more than viable alternative that needs to be put back on the table," Tennille said, adding that the size of Little Rock negates drive time worries. The downtown site "has a huge benefit that other sites under consideration don’t have … access to the hotel space for people coming in and out ... . To be able to stay at downtown hotel and walk to tech park would be fantastic." The park would be a "bigger asset to the city than a tech park tucked away" in West Little Rock.

Tennille stressed that if "If Dr. Good and Dr. Rahn called me tomorrow and said we decided and Site X is the one we determined is best, I'm going to support it." He called Good "an absolute treasure," who works tirelessly to improve education in Arkansas.

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