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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tech Park decision nears — downtown, the best site, will have opposition

Posted by on Sat, Feb 9, 2013 at 9:16 AM

DOWNTOWN DREAMING: Proponents of the downtown site developed this conceptual drawing of a Tech Park on the east side of I-30.
  • DOWNTOWN DREAMING: Proponents of the downtown site developed this conceptual drawing of a Tech Park on the east side of I-30.

I received notice this week of a meeting Wednesday of the board of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority.

Reports are coming on the review of the three finalist sites — downtown near the Clinton Library; at Asher and University, and in the John Barrow Addition. The consultant hand-picked by Authority board member Dickson Flake to guide this project back when it was merely a chamber of commerce dream for a way to siphon money off a city sales tax increase will also comment.

Here's what I think will happen:

* The downtown site is the obvious choice among the three finalists. Questions will be raised about additional land acquisition, but drive around down there. It's mostly warehouse wasteland that has lain fallow for years. Adjacent landowners should be thrilled to add territory to the committed parcels should the development be put there. Which it should be. To the degree any community can point to "synergy" for technical developments, they nearly always point to happening areas with existing relevant enterprise and an ambience that could attract the sorts of scientific and entrepreneurial sorts that make such a project work. That's downtown Little Rock, with Acxiom, new residences geared to younger people, entertainment, a presidential library, a thoroughly green international good works institution (Heifer) and lots more. Distance to UAMS and Children's Hospital is five minutes on the Mills Freeway; to UALR four or five minutes more. With telephone, computers, teleconferencing and the rest, I can't see four or five minutes more of driving as an impediment to meaningful cooperation.

* Mary Good, Bob Johnson and Dickson Flake of the seven-member board clearly oppose the downtown site (though Flake has said he won't participate in the vote). They favor the residential neighborhoods south of UAMS, particularly Forest Hills, which their consultant put into the mix at Flake's insistence at the outset. I count at least two of the remaining four board members in the significant lobby that has developed for the downtown site. Board member Jay Chesshir has friends on both sides and is in a tough spot. Heads of chambers of commerce always endeavor to keep their friends happy. One vote I couldn't guess.

* The consultant will continue to say none of the three finalists is as good as ripping up one of the poor neighborhoods south of UAMS.

* The city board sounds sincere when it says the residential neighborhoods are off the table. But trusting the city board — think Gene Fortson, who wasn't going to run for city board when he was appointed to an unexpired term, but has done so twice — is risky business.

* A neighborhood group will shortly announce its intention to sue at the barest whisper of use of eminent domain to take their residential property.

Lindsey and I discussed this at some length on our weekly podcast. I think tech parks are flavor-of-the-day wishful thinking with a mixed track record nationally. I think ideas and venture capital — not a taxpayer-financed office building — create new business enterprise, both far moreso than the precise location of the geniuses' offices. But if we are to proceed down this path — and that is a foregone conclusion — the downtown site is the obvious choice. The Tech Park board should accept the developing community consensus and move on. A political firefight is in the offing otherwise.

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