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Tech park board to seek input from new consultant, schools 

The Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board will seek input from tech park development and management firm Wexford Science and Technology to assist in getting the Little Rock park off the ground, chair Mary Good said Monday.

Wexford, the major developer of the Winston-Salem technology park that Good and other members of the board visited last week, has invested $100 million in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter's BioTech Place, which is leased to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and recently announced it would invest $150 million more in renovations.

The board members were joined by Mayor Mark Stodola and University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Joel Anderson on the visit, which included a trip to St. Louis' Cortex tech facilities as well.

Good said her takeaway from the trip is that Little Rock has ample assets to attract technology businesses and that "university involvement is crucial."

Whether that commitment would be financial isn't yet known, Good said, though universities will have to make long-term commitments to the park. Financial commitments don't come easy from universities, she said, but their "expanding opportunities" for growth "are clearly part of the sustainability model."

The Winston-Salem facility, developed in 1990, houses all biomedical research facilities for the Wake Forest School of Medicine, facilities relocated to the park when the medical school decided to expand its clinical space. R.J. Reynolds donated old warehouse space to the park. In some sense, "We're in better shape" than Winston-Salem was when it started, Good said, "because we have seed money." She was referring to $22 million that a city sales tax is expected to raise over 10 years, the only investment so far in the park.

Cortex also has significant private funding from the McDonnell (as in McDonnell Douglas aircraft) and Danforth foundations and an investor group, Arch Angel. Their investment has allowed some companies to have space rent-free.

The authority board will meet with tech park sponsors UALR and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as well as Arkansas Children's Hospital and the National Center for Toxicological Research in Pine Bluff to get a clearer idea of what they'll bring to the park. Good said she'd like to hear from all in September and move on choosing a site.

"It was really good to be on the ground and ask questions and to get the benefit of the experience" of the tech park developers, Authority board member Jay Chesshir, who was also on the trip, said. Seeing the role university research plays in the facilities helped the group see "what opportunities exist for [universities here] further involvement in the potential park and what they see as the initial focus for that initial building."

UAMS, whose Bioventures facility is full, has expressed interest in using space in the tech park, though it's not clear whether it is willing to pay rental fees. The Angle feasibility study commissioned by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce suggested that the universities would be the major tenant in the first building, but former Authority board member Dr. Michael Douglas, who headed Bioventures until he retired in January, had earlier said that the only capital the university would offer would be intellectual.

UAMS Chancellor Daniel Rahn addressed the board at its June meeting on the physical needs of biomedical research. UALR chancellor Anderson is expected to address the tech park board on what UALR would like to see at the park at the board's Aug. 14 meeting. Anderson did not return a call to the Times by press time seeking the university's position on financial investment in the tech park.

Wexford manages and raises funds for nine or 10 technology parks, Good said, and "are very knowledgeable about these things."

Good said she believes Little Rock's current tech-based assets "are as good as any" of the parks visited. "I really think our facility is going to be more entrepreneurial than either of those two parks."

Siting the park will still be an issue, since the board has shown little interest in the four sites so far proposed. Dan Cramer, an executive with Wexford who met with the board members and others in Winston-Salem, said proximity to institutions was "the formula for success," Chesshir said, though Cramer tempered that by saying the park should be in an urban, rather than a suburban, location. The Wake Forest Innovation Quarter is located 2.5 miles from the medical center, but "they bridged the proximity issue by moving research functions to the park itself," Chesshir said. Would Little Rock taxpayers approve of using their taxes to build UAMS or UALR a building? Chesshir said he'd heard no objection to that idea.

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