His skepticism is informed, first, by a long history with City Director Joan Adcock, of late a declared friend of the neighborhoods, but not to be trusted based on her long record. He also added:
I am not in the least bit convinced that we "have won." The Kumpuris/Adcock legislation passed by the Board was an attempt to keep us quiet until after the elections. Today's article in the Democrat-Gazette about the Tech Park's housing committee just confirms my belief that Mary Good and Co. are moving ahead with their plans to build the park in one of the three sites.
Furthermore, landlords — including recent buyers who smelled a windfall from acquiring rental property soon to be condemned — have been organizing tenants to speak up for neighborhood acquisition. They hope to build the groundswell of supposed "neighborhood support" that could give the Authority cover to turn back to condemning that property.
Structurally, nothing has changed, though the city board has encouraged the Tech Park poobahs to look for other sites and a nominal search is underway. A Board unanswerable to the public still calls the shots. It was intentionally set up by law to have authority above the city, above the county, even above the entire state itself.
See this attorney general's opinion issued Wednesday in response to a question from Sen. Joyce Elliott. Does the Authority have to comply with state purchasing law? It does not. It might have to submit budgets to participating agencies, but it doesn't have to seek approval for the budget or anything else. Said the opinion:
... the legislature [through a law written by the LR Chamber] has expressed its intent that the Research Park Authority Act “be liberally construed to accomplish its intent and purposes and shall be the sole authority required for the accomplishment of its purpose.” This section further states that “[i]t shall not be necessary to comply with the general provisions of other laws dealing with public facilities and their acquisition….” Although I cannot definitively opine to this effect, I believe it may reasonably be contended based upon this provision alone that the state’s purchasing requirements do not apply to an authority created under the Research Park Authority Act.
The Authority is a law unto itself. Anybody who thinks it won't ultimately act that way hasn't watched its creation and its sponsors' secretive, unaccountable role in wangling a $22 million gratuity from the city of Little Rock to build an office building in a city broken out with empty office buildings. Why, indeed, must neighbors still be forced to talk about being moved into public housing if acquisition of their homes is really off the table?
I'll believe neighborhood bulldozing is dead when the Authority buys another site. Not before. They won't be condemning central city residential property without a lawsuit, that much is clear.
"Enough is enough," Planning Commissioner Keith Fountain and other residents of the Pettaway Neighborhood Association say: It's time for the city to condemn the vacant and derelict Job Corps building at 21st and Vance and bulldoze it.
Fountain has witnessed thefts from the building with his own eyes. Windows have been knocked out and partially boarded up, and transients have lived in the building and set fires, Fountain said.
City Director Erma Hendrix raised the Job Corps issue at the Pettaway's monthly meeting tonight at the 21st Alert Center, and several residents spoke in favor of tearing down the building. (One Central High school student, Arkiterea Harmon, suggested the building be rehabilitated for kids who have aged out of the foster care system, but, Hendrix told her, the asbestos and bad condition of the city would prevent that.) A refrain was that the eyesore, visible from Interstate 30 and 630, puts Little Rock in a bad light and expressed doubt that such a building would be allowed to stand in a more affluent neighborhood.
The city inspected the building in 2009 when Mayor Mark Stodola was considering buying it from the federal government for use as a homeless shelter, an idea the neighborhood was firmly opposed to.
Hendrix said the building is now owned by a Texas concern. I couldn't find any information on the owner tonight.
The neighborhood plans to circulate petitions to be presented to the City Board of Directors at its Feb. 7 meeting. The city has made it clear, however, that it doesn't have the power to force demolition of a building, a hotel before it was used by the Job Corps.
The board of the association also noted that the Department of Veterans Affairs' plan to put a veterans center at the Cook Jeep building at Tenth and Main was "a done deal." (The VA is moving forward, but the head of the agency, to whom U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin has complained, hasn't been heard from yet on the issue.) There was no discussion; Fountain said later the neighborhood's concerns are focused on the Job Corps building.
For nearly three hours (6-9 p.m.) in a jam-packed alert center, downtown residents and business owners complained, sometimes angrily, to representatives of the Veterans Administration that their proposal to open a drop-in clinic in the former Cook Jeep showroom on Main Street would bring new homeless people to the neighborhood, some made violent by mental illness, and ruin the neighborhood's delicate recovery. By a show of hands, 40 people in the 100-plus crowd at the Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting at 500 21st and said they opposed the clinic; 10 said they supported it.
All who spoke stressed that they weren't opposed to the veterans getting help, but said that the Main Street location wasn't appropriate, and they were angry that the neighborhood hadn't been first approached by the VA before it entered into the lease. DNA board member Jill Judy called the VA's decision to move into the Cook Jeep spot "a flagrant misuse of power."
So it was a bit surprising that DNA president Tony Curtis had to vote to break a 5-5 tie in the board's action expressing the neighborhood's opinion on the clinic. He voted no, along with Jennifer Mitchem, Tiffany Kell, Jill Judy, Jim Weirdsma and Maggie Hawkins. Voting in favor of the clinic: Kathy Wells, Matilda Luovering, Valerie Abrams, Chuck Heinbockel and Richard Ball. Curtis said he'd received 200 calls from people opposing the clinic.
Downtowners asked repeatedly whether anything could be done to stop the clinic, now that the VA has signed a five-year contract to lease the property from Oklahoma company SI Property Investments. The answer from a VA rep at the meeting: maybe. However, after all the red tape is gone through, the government might have to pay a penalty to the lessor five times the price of one year's lease, or 5 times $189,000.
The meeting — attended by Congressman Tim Griffin, Mayor Mark Stodola and a representative from Sen. John Boozman's office spoke — opened with short presentations by VA representatives to clear up what they said are myths about the clinic. Dr. Tina McClain said the clinic, currently operating at 2nd and Ringo, is not a homeless shelter and not a soup kitchen. She said that only veterans that agree to work with caseworkers may get services. Its goal is to provide health services to veterans and help them find jobs and housing. No pharmaceuticals are kept or dispensed at the clinic; vets must go to the VA to fill their prescriptions. There is a police officer on staff, and government vehicles to transport patients to wherever they need to go when the clinic closes.
About the fact that there is a liquor store nearby the Main Street location, a point made by Stodola and several in the audience: Dr. McClain said that if she had her druthers, no, she wouldn't operate a clinic by liquor store. But the fact is that there are liquor stores everywhere, and noted that there is an AA chapter near the location. She became emotional when she said that veterans help each other. "It touches your heart. If they see somebody in need crossing the street [to buy liquor] they will grab their arm" and keep them away.
Frank Smith, an Army veteran who served in Germany, talked to the group about how the clinic had helped him with a substance abuse problem, worked with him to get into school, helped him work out fine repayments and so forth. He said he'd been clean since April and was saving his earnings.
But a doctor in the audience said she'd had experience treating veterans with psychiatric problems and had been bitten, urinated on, had feces thrown at her and had been purposely been stuck with needles by such patients. Allowing a clinic that treats such patients in the Quapaw Quarter neighborhood was an "unnecessary risk."
Joe Fox, who owns Community Bakery across I-630 from the old Cook Jeep facility, said he's dealt with the homeless for years and said he'd like the VA clinic to stay open during business hours so that when he has to ask a customer to leave, they can go to the clinic.
Along with safety concerns, economic ones were raised as well. One woman said she'd been looking at property on Main for a small business but was no longer, thanks to the announcement of the clinic.
In his remarks, Stodola said the city would be glad to work with the VA to find another place; he said the fact that the VA hadn't planned to open until 2013 meant there was time to continue a search for a new place.
But Dr. Estella Morris, who heads up the VA's homeless program, said the VA had been trying for years to find new space for the clinic and had run into opposition from the city every time. That's why VA hospital administrators directed the clinic to go the formal route this time: To put out advertisements in the newspaper seeking proposals from interested property owners. (Two were made; the other proposal, from the owners of the Donaghey Building, was rejected). Stodola, criticized for not being on top of the VA's move, griped that "An RFP is not the same as going out and finding a location" with the city's knowledge. Dr. Margie Scott, VA chief of staff, apologized to Stodola for not meeting with him about the RFP.
Onie Irvine, with S.I. Property Investments, said the company, which manages several VA clinics, would work closely with neighbors and would make the clinic a beautiful, safe place. "We do not take this lightly," she said.
McClain said afterward that she wasn't surprised by the sometimes hostile questioning, but she was surprised by the mayor's statement that no one from the VA had attended a Wednesday meeting of the city's Homeless Coalition. The mayor said earlier this week that the coalition had been disbanded and would be restructured.
CLARIFICATION: I learned this morning that the group that met Wednesday was the Homeless Coalition (service providers), not the city's Homeless Commission, which is inactive.
The VA representatives said they would be glad to be part of task force to work with the DNA and the city to find a solution, but it appears they hope to win the hearts and minds of the QQ, rather than start the process over again to find a new home.
City Director Ken Richardson, who represents Ward 2, where the Little Rock Technology Park could be built, told the park Authority this afternoon that, unless it acts swiftly to identify where it will build, "misery merchants" will prey on unsuspecting residents to get them to sell their homes.
Richardson, who isn't a supporter of using eminent domain to build the park, said he would support the Authority's efforts as long as site decisions were made "from the bottom up instead of the top down." That was a resounding theme at this afternoon's meeting of the Authority at the Reddy Room at Entergy's office downtown. Some
70 people crowded the room to hear the board talk about site selection. (See maps for areas considered here, in the request for proposals for site evaluation issued by the board.)
Bottom line: The authority expects to have hired a civil engineer by the first quarter of 2012 and could have a site selected by the third quarter of next year.
Several speakers in the audience expressed anxiety about losing their homes, and state Sen. Joyce Elliott asked if the Authority could pay more than the fair market value for a house, since residents might have a hard time affording new housing and moving costs. Authority member Dickson Flake said that "special consideration" might be given "in some cases," a statement that gave pause to some folks who gathered after the meeting to talk about their concerns. One of them was Justice of the Peace Donna Massey, who lives on Tyler Street and who, as the first to address the Authority, told them bluntly "I like my neighbors and I don't desire to move."
Most in the audience, however, seemed resigned, but unhappy, about the disruption to neighborhoods the tech park promises, though a few asked why it couldn't be somewhere else and one man suggested the park go on land that is now the War Memorial Golf Course. Another woman said she was ready to sell, but said the Authority wasn't doing enough to inform neighborhoods about its progress on the park. Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce head Jay Chessir, a board member, said the Authority was thinking about putting together a website to keep people updated. But the woman said she wasn't an Internet user and neither were her neighbors. Joe Busby, of the Oak Forest neighborhood association, and another man from the neighborhood suggested the board to meet with residents IN their neighborhoods, rather than at the Entergy offices during work hours, an idea that drew applause.
The only dollars committed to the LR Technology Park now are taxpayers' — the $22 million that the new sales tax will raise in Little Rock. Robert Webb, who campaigned against the tax hike, asked what contributions could be expected from UAMS or UALR, which, in theory, will benefit from the park. The answer: nothing beyond "seed money" contributions of $125,000. Dr. Mary Good of UALR, who chairs the committee, said the only way public universities could come up with money would be to raise tuition or get it from the state. The contribution from the universities will be "intellectual property," she said.
The $22 million will be spent on site acquisition and infrastructure. Chessir said private concerns won't be interested in investing in the park until they see the infrastructure. That leaves the question hanging: What if you build it and nobody comes?
The Board of the Arkansas Schools for the Blind and Deaf last night rejected a proposal from Easter Seals to transfer its $1-a-year lease of almost 10 acres of Blind School land to Little Rock businessman John Chandler, who proposed to buy the former Easter Seals center on the property at the eastern end of Lee Avenue for business offices, including for his clothing business. A neighbor who's been following the developments and opposes office use, provides my report.
The neighbor, Joann Coleman, said the board also asked for more details on a later-developing proposal from Stephens Inc. executive Doug Martin to buy the property and use it solely for a single-family residence. Chandler agreed to pay $240,000 to Easter Seals for the building and transfer of the lease. Martin has proposed — though he has no contract — to pay $240,000 each to Easter Seals and the state, plus pay up to $500,000 to remove the old building, abandoned by Easter Seals when it built a new facility in western Little Rock.
I'm in receipt of more details about an alternate proposal for the former Easter Seals training center property at the east end of Lee Avenue across a ravine from the owner of the land underneath the building, the Arkansas School for the Blind.
Doug Martin, a senior managing director at Stephens Inc., and his wife, Melanie Masino, who live nearby on Hill Road, have proposed to buy the property for $480,000 for eventual construction of a single-family home. The purchase price would be split evenly between Easter Seals and the state. Martin would pay, within limits, to remove the existing building, a process that likely will be complicated by the presence of asbestos. Most of the 10-acre tract would be in a conservation easement, guaranteeing that it would not be developed. A level portion of about two acres would be developed for the home, but a buffer zone of green space would separate the home from the end of Lee Avenue, which has homes on either side.
This competes with an existing offer by businessman John Chandler, also a Hillcrest resident, to buy the building for use for offices of his clothing business. Chandler proposes to pay Easter Seals $240,000 to assume its lease on the property from the state school. Neighbors have raised questions about a continuing commercial use of the property. Several have also contended that Easter Seals has broken its lease by moving out of the building and ending rehablitation services there for students.
Martin has sent his proposal to the Board of Trustees for the Arkansas Schools for the Blind and Deaf, which controls the property; the Hillcrest Residents Association; Easter Seals, and various neighbors. Meetings on the subject are coming soon.
NOTE CORRECTION: My original post erroneously said removal of the old building would be paid from sale proceeds. The Martins would pay that, within limits, in addition to purchasing the property.
I've been reporting sporadically on the latest effort by Easter Seals to sell its derelict building on the eastern end of Lee Avenue, on state land across a ravine from the owner, the state schools for the blind and deaf. Easter Seals wants to get some money out of the building, though it arguably has broken its state land lease by ceasing rehab services it promised to provide and by vacating the building. Neighbors, after a couple of decades of devious politicking by Easter Seals to unlock money from the building, view the agency with a jaundiced eye. So they've been wary about leaping to endorse the latest Easter Seals deal, to sell the building to a businessman who'd like to put his offices (for an international clothing business) in the facility and continue to rent some space to two psychiatrists.
It would appear that Easter Seals hasn't warmed the neighborhood to the offer as yet. I can report an intriguing new offer has emerged to put a single-family home on the property, including protective covenants on perpetual use of the land. The pending proposal must be decided first. More details when I have them.
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