Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
There are many questions about the technology park that Little Rock tax dollars are helping build somewhere between the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Where exactly will it be? Who will locate there? Who besides the taxpayers will pay for it? Will it succeed in generating jobs and inventions and royalties for its sponsoring institutions? If so, when?
But one thing's for sure: Because the Technology Park Authority has limited potential locations to residential areas minutes away from UAMS and UALR, people are going to lose their homes. Some of those people have lived in the three areas under consideration, all south of Interstate 630, for 25 years. The Authority has the right to exercise eminent domain, and those who don't negotiate a sale price with the Authority will be taken to court.
It's not just homes standing in the way of what the Authority board of directors promises will be progress. The Methodist Children's Home campus occupies the greater part of one of the three areas under consideration for the park. Another area wraps around an elementary school and a church and includes homes newly remodeled with federal grants meant to revitalize neighborhoods. The third — now mapped at 65 acres — could require removal of 272 occupied houses should the Authority decide to clear the entire area.
Each of the areas has its strengths and disadvantages, relating to access to highways, number of houses that will have to go and effect on traffic patterns. The civil engineering firm Crafton Tull has been hired by the Authority board to assess the three; its work is expected to be done in six months.
In the meantime, residents and organizations concerned about losing land are girding for battle. "Not For Sale" signs are going up in the Forest Hills neighborhood south of Interstate 630. The University District Partnership, a department of technology park sponsor UALR, has asked the Authority to exempt the parcel that would surround Good Counsel Catholic Church on 12th Street on three sides from consideration. The Methodist Children's Home, contiguous to land owned by UALR, is keeping mum, but its leadership notes recent investment in campus refurbishment.
Adding insult to injury is that the Authority's seven-member board — a public body created by state law and which will receive $22 million in taxpayer dollars — has no staff and is operated out of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, where two on staff have been handling park-related questions from the public. There was initial reluctance on the part of the chamber staff, apparently unclear on the state Freedom of Information law, to provide to the public the documents submitted by engineering firms in response to a request for proposals. A public meeting to select the firm from among five bidders was loosey-goosey, with only three members of the board — one of them on a phone — attending. They ranked the bidders, added their rankings to those provided by the absent members, announced the winner and tossed the ballots, so it is impossible to know how each board member ranked the bidders.
Asked when the board would hire a staff, Dickson Flake, a prominent commercial realtor who has emerged as the board's spokesman, said it would be some time in the future, when the park is built; the Authority hasn't got the budget to afford staff. The Authority's website, lrtechpark.com, went live this week; it includes links to the ANGLE feasibility study commissioned by the chamber, legislation and meeting information.
The only cash the Authority has in hand is $150,000 in seed funding, coming in equal contributions of $25,000 from UAMS, UALR, Arkansas Children's Hospital and the city and $50,000 from the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. UAMS, UALR, ACH and the city have pledged to provide another $100,000 each, for a total seed fund of $550,000.
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