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Friday, October 18, 2013

Pressure on the park board: Build it downtown

Posted By on Fri, Oct 18, 2013 at 5:55 PM

click to enlarge 1376428952-downtownmap.jpg


Pressure on the Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board to choose the heart of downtown as a site for the future park has been growing, with Mayor Mark Stodola, Gov. Mike Beebe and a CEO whose plans to locate his tech business in the River Market district all coming out heartily in support. 

Perhaps most significant, however, is the support expressed by University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dan Rahn. In an email earlier this week to three board members — Jay Chesshir, who holds the unofficial Chamber of Commerce position on the seven-member board, and UAMS board appointees Tom Butler and Kevin Zaffaroni — Rahn wrote:

“I just want you to know that UAMS and BioVentures will be a substantial partner in this venture if it is located downtown. We think that the success for BioVentures and technology companies fits best with a downtown location. We do not have plans to build additional BioVentures space on the campus so we would co-develop this downtown with the Authority. We have a couple of business [sic] under development right now that would fit very well with with this vision. Let me know if I can help further.”

In a separate email to Chesshir, Rahn wrote that UAMS is interested in being the anchor in the first building, leasing 25,000-plus square feet of new or renovated space.

Rahn is out of the office until Oct. 29 and could not be reached for further comment. 

Rod Ford,
the CEO of nGage, a tech company that will move into the River Market, declared his support for a downtown location at a press conference announcing the details of the company’s move here. The reason: Downtown has the amenities — places to live, work, socialize, enjoy cultural events — needed to draw entrepreneurs and private investment to Little Rock, and so makes the most economic sense.

The board has also gotten a letter from Texas developers Wallace Bajjali seeking to enter into a public-private arrangement with the board to create a "Research/ Technology/Innovation/Creative District" downtown.

There is no private money committed to the park right now; only the city’s $22 million in tax receipts over 10 years is in the pot.

Friday, board chair Dr. Mary Good — who is on the record as being opposed to the downtown site — invited Stodola to its Oct. 23 meeting to "discuss the current environment for the planned tech park" with the board. The board is expected to choose one of three sites for the park, with a fallback site, at the meeting.

The letter follows the mayor's suggestion that the board put off its Oct. 23 vote to more thoroughly explore the three sites under discussion.

Rahn's support puts him at odds with his UALR counterpart, Chancellor Joel Anderson, who would like to see the park be built on land adjacent to the UALR campus. He presented details of his proposal to the Tech Park board Oct. 9. Anderson's argument is that the park, under the legislation that created the authority, is to primarily serve a research function, and that UALR has what researchers will need in the way of equipment and proximity to university personnel. He has repeated that he envisions tech park users as being "braniacs who care more about lab time than happy hour."

The tech park board has been chewing over the tough decision on where to site the park for two years, having been prohibited from locating in its initial preferred locations in residential neighborhoods in the Fair Park area south of Interstate 630. One of those sites was suggested by Dickson Flake, a member of the board and former Chamber of Commerce head who has been the moving force behind the tech park idea. UALR’s site is most like the original three. Flake is believed to be in Good's camp — that is, not in support of a downtown site.


A third site, property on University now under a three-year lease to Sears, is also under consideration. In his email to Chesshir, Rahn wrote that "I can't visualize recruiting to the Sears site." Butler, Zaffaroni and C.J. Duvall — the city’s other representative on the board — look like they’ll vote for the downtown site. Good, Flake and Johnson seem to favor the UALR site. The board will choose a runner-up site in case their first choice has a glitch that can’t be overcome.

That makes Chesshir the swing vote, right? He said not Friday afternoon. Maybe consensus is building.




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