FYI, Chancellor Anderson announced at the UALR faculty senate meeting on Friday that he did not expect the UALR site to be chosen. In fact, he stated that he thought it was in 3rd place out of the three sites. He didn't seem to be too bothered by that either.
The board of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority is meeting today.
One item is a deadline for site selection for the train wreck of a $22 million city taxpayer-funded venture that doesn't yet know what it will be, where it will be or where any of the rest of the necessary money will come from. No private volunteers have emerged yet. In fact, except for token sums from UALR, UAMS and Children's Hospital (all publicly funded), nobody but beleaguered Little Rock taxpayers have emerged as financial supporters just yet.
UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, a quiet, low-key but straight-shooting sort, is trying again today to move the conversation in productive directions. Yesterday, he came up with a site idea that relies heavily on UALR property or adjacent property. It's worth consideration. It joins at least six others, including a circus of a War Memorial Park mixed-use development.
Today, the chancellor is focusing more on concept. He said the Board should visit Fayetteville. He noted that a company up there started in 100 square feet with two people and now is in 35,000 square feet with 35 employees making an average of $90,000. It took 16 years.
Do take a look. And be sure to take a look at the private commitment, in money, sweat and tears in Fayetteville.
In Little Rock, the wise fathers of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, already unconstitutionally subsidized by taxpayer money, think there's no problem that can't be solved by taking sales tax money from low-paid workers and throwing it at some private business venture. What kind of venture? Doesn't matter so long as you give the construction industry a little tribute by building a bunch of buildings somewhere, anywhere.
Leslie Peacock will be checking in with more on this meeting in a while.
Leslie mentions also that Anderson appears to be making it clear that proximity to UALR is critical to his institution's support. Does that mean a veto from his board rep on a downtown site?
Let's answer Max's question about Anderson first: After he made his presentation to the board about what university researchers are working on that can commercialized and repeated yesterday's announcement that UALR would like to see a 20.45-acre area adjacent to it as a site for the park, board members asked him what UALR's commitment would be if the property wasn't selected. "I am obliged to support the board's decision," Anderson said, "but I would expect that UALR as a sponsor would be given due consideration." And what would be the school's commitment? "I have said ... that when the time came," that is, after a building is constructed, UALR would do its best to step up and occupy space, which is what he told the Times recently. If the park was near, the school would consider moving its Center for Innovation and Commercialization there, Anderson said, but "if it's at a distance that makes it inconvenient, we wouldn't put it there."
Leslie Peacock is covering his presentation to the UALR Board of Vistors. Our early word was that full development would require acquisition of private homes in about half the strip of property adjoining the campus, as well as conversion of some existing parking. But our early word, too, was that Anderson would propose a federal government-style acquisition program — not just acquisition of property at market value, but relocation assistance as well.
I'm interested to know if Anderson has developed more of a vision of what the Authority is to be. There's been a lack of clarity on mission — research augmentation for UAMS and UALR or a business incubator, for example. That has been overshadowed to date by the long and unsuccessful search for a site. UALR would not donate the property, but sell it at market value. To date, the only real commitment to the project has been the $20 million or so committed by the city of Little Rock from a new sales tax. Still missing is any contribution from private sources.
The UALR master plan had designated this land for university use someday, so it would effectively put some limits on campus growth. Anderson said he'd talked to Authority Board Chair Mary Good about his idea and she was non-committal.
UPDATE: Saying his "worst nightmare the last two years has been a failed tech park," Anderson outlined UALR's proposal, which he believes would give the park its best chance to succeed: UALR would sell, at fair market value, property it owns within a 20.45-acre parcel bound on the south by 27th Street, on the east by Fair Park, on the north by 24th Street and on the west by Coleman Creek and Fillmore Street. It owns a checkerboard of 28 properties within those boundaries; there are 65 properties there altogether. Twenty of the 37 properties UALR does not own are rental and 17 are owner-occupied.
Anderson said UALR would sell with the stipulation that the Tech Park board commit to federal guidelines for acquisition of residential property, which assure "fair treatment of property owners and of residents." He added that UALR had asked the directors of the Methodist Children's Home, north of 24th street, if they would be interested in a joint offer, but they said they weren't.
UALR's master plan calls for eventually trying to buy the unowned properties for university expansion, and Anderson said he and others who debated the offer had to decide if it was a good idea to give it up for a tech park. But, he said, if the tech park is a success, "the city wins," and if the city wins, "UALR also wins." He said UA System President Donald R. Bobbitt and former UALR chancellor Charles E. Hathaway are "highly supportive" of the idea.
The site is ideal, Anderson said, because initially the park will rely on the intellectual resources of UALR and fellow sponsor the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to initiate home-grown businesses and proximity is crucial to that interaction. Only in its later stages will it attract out-of-state companies less reliant on the sponsors, he said.
Anderson said he had let UAMS Chancellor Daniel Rahn know of the idea a while ago. The Times has not been able to reach Rahn for comment.
After the meeting, Anderson said he wanted to "emphasize that this is not an offer," but "a beginning of a discussion with the community." That discussion is important; if most of the owners of the remaining property do not want to sell, an ordinance passed last year by the city Board of Directors that would prohibit the park board from using eminent domain to acquire property could make it impossible for the board to move forward.
Anderson will address the Tech Park board at its regular meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m., in the Bailey Center on the UALR campus.
Leslie Newell Peacock reports on an interview with UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson on a potential use of the facility to be built by the city-financed Little Rock Technology Park Authority:
Anderson has been out of town since returning from a trip to technology parks with the authority board and Mayor Mark Stodola. He talked to the Times last week.
Would a shuttle, such as the ones used in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem, N.C., to transport researchers to a medical school and hospital a little over 2 miles away, be “easy access”? Possible, Anderson said, but he expects a shuttle system won’t be feasible until there are “a lot of people riding back and forth and my prediction would be that would be a number of years” off.
Anderson did not say what constituted easy access. But he did say that whatever place the Tech Park authority chooses to locate, he said he would be “a cheerleader” and that the university, which is one of the sponsors of the park “will do all it can” to make the park a success.
The tech park delegation visited the 200-acre Winston-Salem facility, founded by Wake Forest University, and the Cortex research hub in St. Louis in early July. Anderson said a parallel could not be drawn between those parks, which are heavily occupied by university departments, and Little Rock’s future park. The universities in St. Louis (including Washington University and St. Louis University) and Wake Forest are private, with considerable endowments. UALR and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, also a sponsor of the Little Rock park, are publicly funded and “in a different world.”
Both the St. Louis and Wake Forest parks also have significant private funding, including a $186 million investment from Wexford Science and Technology announced last year in St. Louis and R.J. Reynolds in Wake Forest.
Here, “development of a big project is going to have to be creative and entrepreneurial and go step by step” to make up for a lack of upfront private funding. “A great advantage we have is the vote of the people of Little Rock to make a major public investment in it.”
The Angle report on the feasibility of the tech park said the universities here will have to take a major role at first, becoming the major tenants. UAMS would theoretically lease space for embryonic companies that it has helped into being at its BioVentures technology center on campus, though its major capital contribution will be “intellectual” rather than monetary, its leadership has said. There will have to be investment from UALR, Anderson agreed, though how much would depend on location. “Certainly the farther away it is the harder to justify.”
Board chair Mary Good's letter to Zaffaroni notes that the board will not meet July 10, its regularly scheduled meeting day, because members are taking a trip. She's referring to a trip board members are making with Mayor Mark Stodola and consultant Charles Dilks to technology parks in Winston/Salem and St. Louis.
Zaffaroni replaces Dr. Michael Douglas, the head of UAMS Bioventures who retired in January.
Local politicos will remember Luther Lowe, who's in town today leading a social-media training session. The Fayetteville native worked for retired Gen. Wesley Clark and the state Democratic Party in the mid-aughts before taking a position in 2008 at Yelp, the online business directory and review platform. His current position is director of business outreach and public policy. What's that mean? Mostly explaining what Yelp does to policymakers, Lowe said earlier this week. He's also working to convince government agencies to use Yelp as a platform for garnering feedback from the citizens it serves as well as figuring out different ways the company can use open government datasets. For instance, Yelp recently created an open-data standard for information on restaurant health-inspection scores (it’s currently only available in the San Francisco area). Lowe said the company was inspired by the geographic-information standards Google helped define with Google Maps.
“Yelp is calling on cities to arrange their data in a certain way and provide it on a real time feed that other people can take advantage of,” Lowe said. “Usually the private sector, where the success of businesses relies on beautiful and functional products, is better equipped to take a [data] file and make it useful. Taxpayers sort of subsidize creation of that information, but it doesn’t see the light of day because governments aren’t the best at putting the data in a place that’s easy to access. You’re not going to go to a dot.gov site before you go out to dinner; you’re going to go to Yelp.”
Lowe still keeps tabs on politics and tech in Arkansas. His take on the tech park? It should be downtown. “You imagine pitching to a company like Yelp or Twitter or any cool young tech company. They don’t want to be in a strip mall. They want to be somewhere with a sense of vibrancy, where you’re catering to a younger demographic and you’re flanked by a cool, hip scene.”
Lowe thinks Arkansas has a natural predisposition to become a tech player. “If you look at innovative companies, it’s the Arkansas way. We’re independent, scrappy, innovative people. We have the DNA for tech entrepreneurship. Acxiom in downtown Little Rock is a great symbol of that.
“I dream about coming back to Little Rock and poaching some guys from Acxiom and getting space in the LaHarpe building, getting a ping pong table and a keg and going for it.”
When I said that sort of impulse might be an argument against the tech-park vision, Lowe said he understood the vision was fairly undefined. Which is true. “What I’m imagining is an incubator," he said. "That kind of tech park would be a definite magnet. Free rent and internet — that’s huge.”
The Little Rock Technology Park Authority board of directors had a come-to-Jesus meeting today, its members [most of them anyway] speaking candidly about confusion about what the board's goals are. Is it building a park for IT startups, with an incubator like the Iceberg in Fayetteville, where Ark Challenge minds meet, or for bio-med businesses? Or both? Should the authority consider building two parks? What about that fourth site recommended by consultant Charles Dilks in March? The back-and-forth was so wide-ranging and refreshing that board member C.J. Duvall was nearly ecstatic, exclaiming several times, "We're actually having a discussion!"
After a two-hour meeting, the board voted to adopt a motion made by member Jay Chessir that everyone re-read the 2009 Angle Report that started the technology park in motion and refresh their memories on the purpose for the park. Chessir said the frank discussion about the board's difficulties was "long overdue."
After the meeting, neither board chair Dr. Mary Good nor Chessir would credit the openly-expressed identity crisis to yesterday's letter to the board from Mayor Mark Stodola, who expressed "amazement" that the board was considering a fourth site, calling it "bewildering at best," and suggesting the board go back and do its homework to gain "as much knowledge as possible of likely technology-driven companies and disciplines willing to locate in the Tech Park" before deciding on a site.
Duvall got the ball rolling by observing that he had no longer had any faith in Dilks, who at the last meeting surprised the board by saying he had what he thought was the solution to all the board's problems with siting of the tech park: A fourth site, including unconnected Brandon House and Sears properties on University Avenue, one of which, as it turns out, already had an offer on it, the other was not available until 2017 and their total acreage less than half the 30 acres Dilks had told the board was a necessity in his first consultation over a year ago. Dilks, who wrote the board in January that the proposed downtown site, at 701 Collins St., was too small at 10 acres and the U-shape of the proposed location at Asher and University presented access problems across the site, and the site on John Barrow might not be able to expand, said in defense of the new alternative that there was new thinking that tech parks could be made more "compact, denser."
(Astonishingly, member Dickson Flake rose to Dilks' defense, saying "he's taken the same position since Day 1 on the sites," and was merely offering an idea that was a "tradeoff" to allow the tech park to be built close to its university sponsors, UAMS and UALR.)
Member Tom Butler, vice chancellor for administration and governmental affairs at UAMS, sounded a cautionary note, saying UAMS' financial situation had changed substantially since the tech park authority was formed, noting that federal sequestration had cost it $400,000. He said UAMS still supports the park, but there was a question about "do we really know what we need."
Chessir said he's been "scratching his head" thanks to discussions with people in town who didn't seem to know what the board's aims were. "It dawned on me why we're in this situation," he said. "We haven't done any education of the public since 2011," he said, or talked to "public officials and sponsors since 2009." "I have the utmost respect [for Dilks]," Chessir said, but he said it was time for the board to "step back from siting [discussions] and re-engage with with what got us started," the Angle report.
Adding flame to the fire were remarks by Tom Dalton and Jeff Stinson, who were asked to appear. Dalton, who heads up Accelerate Arkansas, and Stinson, who manages the Fund for Arkansas and is the director of the Innovation Center at UALR, talked about the start-up climate in Arkansas today, which is heating up in Northwest Arkansas and is mainly centered on information technology. Their discussion of the Ark Challenge and the way IT startups are born — in cheap, collaborative workspace by young people who want to be near restaurants and bars and coffee shops — triggered a lively debate about whether such incubators should be in a biotech park or whether two sites were needed. (Dalton corrected the board about its references to "tech" businesses, saying that the phrase was "off-putting" and that such new business are referred to as "knowledge-based" companies.)
Duvall added to Chessir's motion that the board will support efforts by Accelerate Arkansas and other angel funds to create a Central Arkansas Ark Challenge, and Dr. Good said she hoped it would be "the first activity for the tech park," though Dalton and Stinson would probably like to see it come to pass sooner than that.
Mayor Mark Stodola has written a tough letter to members of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority board with questions — and expressed "amazement" — about the late arrival of an alternative site on University Avenue consisting of two pieces of property several blocks apart.
The consideration of the new site is "bewildering at best," Stodola writes, on account of how the nearby Interstate 630 and access roads would make pedestrian travel between unconnected parcels difficult. Pedestrian access was once a goal for the development, though so was a 30-acre site and contiguous property, two more failings of the late-arriving site.
But Stodola also plunges into a developing larger controversy. What, exactly, is the idea behind this technology park? Is it an incubator for new businesses? Is it more lab space for two state institutions, UALR and UAMS, to be funded by city sales tax dollars? What's the need? Who will use it?
More importantly, in my mind, the fundamental purpose of the Technology Park, and what types of businesses may likely choose to locate there, has also been thrown into question. It seems extremely speculative and imprudent to purchase property and build offices with wet and dry lab space without first knowing who has expressed a serious interest in occupying the space.
lt would seem to me that gaining as much knowledge as possible of likely technology-driven companies and disciplines willing to locate in the Tech Park is a critical first step prior to deciding both location and size. I do not believe enough specific research and investigation has been conducted in this regard.
Stodola's letter is pointed and full of pertinent questions. Might I say that these questions also would have been well-put back when city taxpayers were being sold a $21 million investment in a grand "economic development" pig in a poke during the sales tax election. But this was a Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce-driven payback to the chamber (specifically Dickson Flake, godfather of the idea) for the Chamber's handling of the secretly run campaign to pass the sales tax. The chamber's director, Jay Chesshir, is a Tech Park board member and the chamber has been serving as the de facto administrative office (and not a very good one) of this public body.
When I asked Stodola for a copy of his letter late last night, he responded also with an answer to my question about what moved him to act:
The prompt came from the latest suggestion of a location. Frankly, as my letter suggests, the Authority would have been much better served to do the hard research first. So let's hope they get around to it now.
C.J. Duvall, a Tech Park Board member who had earlier objected to the "unilateral" decision making by Board chair Mary Good in the siting process, commented to me on Stodola's letter in also sending a copy:
I said this to Mary back in February but was shut out. Now it cannot be ignored.
Stodola now suggests a shift from studying sites to studying likely occupants of the facility before any land is purchased with city tax money.
I would recommend that at a minimum the Authority retain a “high tech” business consultancy firm to give us specific advice on what companies, existing and future, we are likely to land. Particularly, since five major pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring research at UAMS and four are at Children’s Hospital, we should be knowledgeable of whether they have developed businesses in cities where they have ongoing research and where current technology parks exist or whether these facilities have been moved away to existing operations elsewhere. Knowledge of this nature would seem to be a likely predictor of what would happen here.
In addition to the biomedical and nanotechnology fields, we should also request information in related high tech fields such as information technology, alternative energy, nanomedicine, and food processing and safety. I am sure there are several other specific targets that would be identified.
The timing of this is perhaps not perfect with Stodola's call yesterday for consideration of whether members of the City Board are deserving of a pay raise of perhaps 50 percent from the $12,000 paid since 1994. The directors engineered and promised to spend more than $20 million of a regressive sales tax increase on a project that was waved along on typical Chamber of Commerce promises of a mighty stream of prosperity. There was never sufficient consideration of the specific and worthwhile questions the mayor has now decided are worth addressing. Better later than never, however.
I wrote this morning about the latest development on the woebegone Little Rock Technology Park — a rump effort to take over the site selection process because of factional divisions. In short, Chair Mary Good has introduced a new site on University Avenue outside the agreed-on selection process.
I thought to myself as I wrote this morning — what a disaster (I actually thought of a coarser word beginning with cluster). What credibility this undertaking ever had — and it's had its share of doubters from the start — is shot. With a 3-3-1 vote likely spelling impasse on possible site alternatives should the board ever get around to voting, I wondered: Does any leadership exist in Little Rock to right this operation? If not, can voters take matters in their own hands and circulate a referendum to at least shoot the cripple and put all of us out of misery?
Surprise. Something akin to forceful leadership may have finally shown up. I'm on the trail of the evidence and hope to share it before long. Stay tuned. I'm quite sure it will be a subject of discussion at tomorrow's Board meeting, 4 p.m. at UALR.
The Little Rock Technology Park soap opera offers another episode Wednesday, with a board meeting at 4 p.m. at UALR.
Topic A apparently will be the late-arriving idea — championed by Board Chair Mary Good — to plunk the park into a couple of unconnected parcels on University Avenue. Good has been on a personal inspection tour, an unannounced visit that earlier drew critical comments from Authority Board member C.J. Duvall about Good's "unilateral decision making."
To recap: Little Rock taxpayers have committed tens of millions in new sales tax money to build a "technology park," an office project seen by some as a business incubator, by others as additional research space for UAMS and UALR (yet another bone of contention because of the contradictory comments during the tax campaign by city officials). An extended site search produced three finalists. Mary Good and the "expert" hand-picked by Tech Park godfather Dickson Flake didn't like the finalists because none was the residential neighborhood near UAMS that Flake, consultant Charles Dilks and Good favored. So Dilks, unbidden, came up with another site. And he produced his own site evaluator to study the sites. Minimum acreage and contiguous property — once absolutely vital characteristics to Dilks — were no longer so vital. The sites are the former Brandon Furniture store at 12th and University and property currently occupied by Sears several blocks to the north.
In any case, here's the campaign for the new site, as outlined in a document dump less than 48 hours before Wednesday's meeting:
* BRANDON BUILDING DESIGN: This is a drawing of space use in the old furniture store.
* BRANDON BUILDING SUITABILITY: This is the report to Good by Dilks' self-selected architect/planner William Gaudreau on the suitability of the Brandon building for "multi-tenant" use. It has such potential, he said, and presents "many interesting and intriguing opportunities for future redevelopment."
* SEARS PROPERTY: This document maps the Sears location on the north side of I-630.
* SEARS PROPERTY PRICE AND AVAILABLITY: A real estate consultant talks here about existing leases on the Sears property (it would be at least a year before a portion of the parking lot could be available for redevelopment and longer before the Sears building itself could be taken) and the cost of the property (owners say they'd take a bargain $7.9 million.) This document responds to a number of questions about environmental, parking and other issues raised by Board member Jay Chesshir.
* AND WHAT ABOUT THE BRANDON PROPERTY SALE? There's no specific discussion in these documents of the fact that a deal is reportedly in the works to sell the Brandon property to an investor. A land flip shortly before a public decision to use the property could alter the purchase or lease price, you'd think. The Gaudreau letter does say:
Whereas I have not had the benefit of all the work or investigations that has occurred to date, it appears this property opportunity may require immediate action to secure future development rights.
The push is on from the Board chair. Will other Board members toss the months of work on other sites and accede to the Good/Dilks gambit? Check in Wednesday. Like sands in an hour glass, these are the days of our lives.
(Did I actually read a city official saying the plans by a medical group to tear down the old Doctors Hospital just north of the Sears property for a new medical facility somehow was a "chip" toward development of a tech park there? Why not say the new Target, Radio Shack and Sport Clips in a nearby shopping center are also "chips"?
As it happens, problematic parking related to Doctors Hospital came up in one of the memos to Good:
The blog reported yesterday an announcement from Good that there'd be no board meeting this month. Her announcement included further information about a new potential site brought forward by consultant Charles Dilks, after an earlier site search had been completed and winnowed down to three finalists.
Duvall said he was "furious" over the decision not to meet and that board members didn't participate in the decision. "It was not the first time we were caught by surprise," he said.
The board needs to meet more than an hour or so once a month and have more conversations about matters before it, not be "blind-sided" with new information shortly before meetings, Duvall said.
He said Dilks' presentation of a new potential site — two parcels along University Avenue — was one such surprise. He said he'd talked to other board members who agreed that "meetings need to be more conversational and not driven by an agenda. We wonder if public understands that's where this is going, a unilateral decision-making process."
Duvall sees Chair Good as setting the agenda. So have others. She, for example, expressed unhappiness with sites developed in the advertised search process. "We've been patient with Mary, but I've lost my patience," Duvall said.
Duvall is frustrated with Dilks, too, who's backed off early insistence on a number of characteristics of an ideal site in recommending the University Avenue property, including a 30-acre tract of contiguous property and a single-purpose facility. Dilks now says separated smaller parcels might work, including with mixed use of a potential office building. Duvall said Dilks had "no credibility" with him any longer.
"They are not thinking about the taxpayer," Duvall said. "If I hear one more time 'this is a long-term process,' I'm going to pull my hair out." He said the idea of the tech park was to help researchers commercialize their projects. He said that process could begin if people would rally around the concept and if the board could devote more time to moving the project forward. "The magnitude of this decision requires more than an hour or so a month," he said.
Duvall said his concern would likely be a topic of discussion at the next board meeting.
Of Duvall's remarks she said, "I'll talk to him and see what his problems are."
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