Feeling the heat from neighborhood protests, the Little Rock Technology Park Authority is throwing a bone to neighborhoods under consideration for clearance for building an office building with taxpayer money to attract technology businesses.
It will create a committee to hear from the neighborhood and hold a series of meetings.
It’s, again, top-down management from the Tech Authority. No meeting was held to reach this decision. (At the last meeting, public comments were not allowed.) Dr. Mary Good, chairman of the authority, created the committee. She named, in addition to various neighborhood groups, C.J. Duvall, a telcom executive, and Jay Chesshir, the leader of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, to sit on the committee. I’m unaware that any nominations were taken. Good said the meetings will be open. The law gives the committee no option but open meetings since two authority members are participating. The “neighborhood committee,” which has no power over Authority decisions, follows a template Chesshir had offered earlier.
The committee will review, among others, neighborhood “housing resource opportunities.” This is the euphemism floated weeks ago by authority members in the interest of helping neighbors relocate should they lose their homes.
The announcement raises a vague hope for alternatives to the three sites under study. The three are product of a report commissioned long ago by developer real estate Dickson Flake, with the substitution of a residential neighborhood that Flake targeted along Interstate 630 opposite UAMS.
UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn, a partner in the project, had suggested looking at alternative sites. Chair Good is taking an interim route suggested by UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, though I’m unaware the authority ever took a vote on this procedure. He suggested picking the best of the three identified sites and then comparing it with potential alternatives.
There are strong alternatives, including a couple within short driving distances of UAMS and UALR, an unshakable requirement of Dickson Flake. Tech parks of this sort have been created all over the country, with mixed degrees of success. There’s an abundant amount of vacant or underused commercial property along I-30 adjacent to the Clinton Library and Heifer Project. Office space vacated by Verizon’s downsizing of the former Alltel operations here, wired for high-tech, also is in easy reach of the universities along the Arkansas River.
Until now, the project has proceeded according to the Chamber/Flake-originated plan. It is to be financed initially by $22 million in city sales tax money won in a campaign run by the chamber without disclosure of specific expenditures. A public bond issue could cost millions more, according to original studies on the project, but the city hasn’t proposed an issue yet.
Someday, maybe, the Technology Park will have an undertaking in which the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have a designated seat — as it does on both the authority itself and the new neighborhood committe — or call the shots or run the administrative end of a public agency in ways that discourage public inspection. Until then, the public has reason to be suspicious about whose interests are being served.
Someday, we also could dream, this authority won’t be run solely by people from a tiny segment of Little Rock, the silk stocking neighborhoods, as it toys with homes of the less fortunate.
The Authority tossed neighbors one other bone, but it is meaningless.
Whatever site is then chosen, the Authority Board has consistently stated that negotiation, unless impossible, will be the method utilized for property acquisition.
If impossible, of course, the Authority will move to condemn the property under eminent domain power granted it in the law written by the Chamber of Commerce for this purpose. There’s a strong possibility a lawsuit will challenge the constitutionality of the statute. Arkansas case law has frowned on taking of private property for private development purposes. Economic development has specifically been held not a “public use” under the Arkansas Constitution.