Finally a decision on the Little Rock Tech Park: Downtown 

Or not. Tech board will seek more advice.

When is a decision not a decision? When it's made by the Little Rock Technology Park Authority board.

On Oct. 23, the board voted 4 to 3 in favor of using its pot of city tax dollars — the only capital it has so far — to create a "technology corridor" in downtown Little Rock. The park, backers said, could either buy property along Main Street or renovate existing buildings, and board member Kevin Zaffaroni said the process "could be a hell of a lot of fun."

The naysayers to downtown, who voted for a University Avenue lot now occupied by Sears, promptly went on the defensive, explaining to the downtown backers why they were wrong and moving to bring in more consultants on the project. "You are destroying the reason why we are doing this," board member Dickson Flake said.

The new language the downtown supporters use — "corridor" rather than park — embodies the difference in vision board members were expressing. Those who might be termed the old guard, who've been working for years toward building a park, see it as a campus-like center of university research-driven biotech and nanotech commercialization. In that corner: board Chair Dr. Mary Good, the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a UALR appointee to the board; board member Dickson Flake, a realtor and former Chamber of Commerce chair who has been the driving force behind the creation of the park since 2005 and a city appointee to the board, and former state Sen. Bob Johnson, also a UALR appointee to the board.

Then there is the new guard, who cite St. Louis' Cortex park model of a core building in an urban neighborhood, with start-up incubators and new companies filling in vacant warehouses and the like — the urban live/work model. In this corner: Chamber head Jay Chesshir; University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences vice chancellor Tom Butler; Acxiom senior vice president for IT Kevin Zaffaroni, and human resources consultant C.J. Duvall, who was formerly with Allied Wireless.

Standing with the downtown backers are Mayor Mark Stodola and, more importantly, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which like UALR is a sponsoring institution but which has never bought into the notion that the park can't be more than five minutes from the sponsors, the major sticking point with the dissenters. UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, who proposed to the board that it locate the park adjacent to UALR, has said he'll back the park no matter where it locates, though perhaps with less in-kind support.

Watching from the sidelines are the city taxpayers who, having committed to ponying up $22 million for the park, are wondering why the board, which has been meeting more or less monthly since November 2011, has yet to agree on exactly who the park should serve. Where, too, they're wondering is the private investment? In 2010, park planners estimated it would take $50 million to open the first building, coming from tax dollars, $15 million in private investment, $10 million from the state and the rest in grants.

Good says there will be no private investors until they know where the park is going.

A technology company CEO who is locating his business in the River Market says investors are also waiting to see what kind of park the city is building. He says there's been no consensus because Good, Flake and Johnson are talking oranges, and the downtown supporters are talking apples.

"A bioventure is different from a tech park and different from an incubator. ... They attract different kinds of capital," Rod Ford, the chief executive officer of nGage said in an interview last week. "We're really confused right here in Little Rock. We seemingly don't know the difference in these three forms." The board has spent a lot of time debating the best location, "but I haven't seen any discussion about what is the best charter," he said. The board has been "a lot more interested in finding a way to divide up the pie than build a bakery."


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