Resolution of the current controversy over the proposed Little Rock Technology Park will say a lot about who runs the city of Little Rock.
A neighborhood outcry has arisen because the new Tech Park Authority has targeted three sites in predominantly poor, black neighborhoods for a building to attract technology companies, supposedly because of proximity to UAMS and UALR.
Some $22 million was included in the recent $500 million city sales tax increase to go toward construction. Millions more from the city will be expected.
Though the city is providing the money, it has little control over the new agency. The Authority is the brainchild of Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce bigwig Dickson Flake. The Chamber wrote the legislation. The Chamber — through Flake; a former president, Eddie Drilling, and the current CEO, Jay Chesshir — holds three of the 7 seats on the Authority Board. The chamber controls the authority administratively. When questions are asked, they are typically answered by Chesshir, including about the poorly documented expenditures on the Chamber campaign to pass the sales tax.
In 2010, the Chamber pushed in the U.S. Senate for a $1.7 million earmark for the project. That failed proposal targeted the neighborhood along Interstate 630 south of UAMS that Flake personally added to the list of sites.
UAMS and UALR finally became uncomfortable enough about running roughshod over poor, black neighbors that they called for consideration of some alternative sites. OK, Chesshir said, but first we're going to pick a neighborhood site. Neither he nor Flake has ever indicated a willingness to deviate from a Flake-hired consultant's criteria that the building be placed within five minutes of UAMS and UALR.
City Director Dean Kumpuris suggested a six-month site search moratorium and a deeper look at non-residential alternatives. Tech Park boosters didn't like this, even though it won't functionally delay the process. Kumpuris also made neighbors unhappy because they saw his resolution as little more than a way to defuse City Director Kenneth Richardson's more meaningful proposal to flatly block use of city money for acquisition of property by eminent domain.
This column goes to press before the City Board votes on the competing Kumpuris and Richardson ideas. The conventional guess is that the board majority will prefer Kumpuris' window dressing to Richardson's tangible help for neighborhood bargaining power. It would be nice if City Director Gene Fortson at least apologized for his earlier condescending remark that the debate had "taken on a life, an emotional level beyond the bounds of reason and history."
If an unelected agency controlled by a labor union was getting ready to condemn dozens of homes in the Country Club neighborhood with city tax money, I don't think Fortson would have called threatened homeowners unreasonable, no matter how loud they screamed.
And history? You'll hear some history when a lawsuit is filed to prevent a Chamber of Commerce-controlled board from using city tax money to condemn private property to sale or lease to private interests. The city tried that in 1967. The Arkansas Supreme Court declared then, "Without the consent of the owner, private property cannot be taken for private use, even under authority of the legislature."
The Chamber of Commerce is used to getting its way. The City Board unconstitutionally appropriates $200,000 to the corporate lobby each year. Will a few poor people really stop the Chamber's grab for $22 million?
Bulldozing homes might be perilous. A neighborhood-wrecking city board beholden to powerful interests might jumpstart a movement for more democratic city government and an end to the chamber-controlled system that gives the balance of power to at-large city directors like Gene Fortson.