As the (roughly) 22nd meeting of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority since its first in November 2011 was drawing to a close tonight it looked like the board was going to choose a site. On on the table are the Main Street proposal by the Downtown Partnership, the Sears property on University or property on the east side of the UALR campus, 10.1 acres of which is ready for development immediately. Most members said they knew already how they would vote. Dr. Mary Good, Dickson Flake, C.J. Duvall, Kevin Zaffaroni, Tom Butler and Bob Johnson were at the gate, nostrils flaring.
The nostril part isn’t true, but the board was within a nanosecond of casting votes when Jay Chesshir, executive director of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce said, in so many words, hold your horses. He still had questions. “All I know about this [the UALR proposal just formally presented by Chancellor Joel Anderson] is what I read in the paper” and the evening’s presentation, Chesshir said. He said the board could come back in two weeks, on Oct. 23, and vote then.
The other board members backed out their chutes and said OK. Besides, they needed to figure out how to vote. We don’t vote in public, do we? asked Johnson, to which several folks in the audience said, “You have to.” That settled that, presumably.
After tossing around several options, the board took Chessir’s advice and agreed to come to the next meeting with their top choice in mind, and if four of the seven agree, they’re done. They’ll choose a second site in case negotiations with the sellers of the first pick falls through. Zaffaroni, an Acxiom executive, said he thought the board needed to reach consensus for the good of the community.
Heading in to the meeting, Good told me she believes only two of the three sites are viable; she doesn’t think the downtown site makes any sense, especially suggestions that the vacant Donaghey building be considered. (She’s right there.)
Anderson appeared to make a good impression on the board with his thorough presentation, one he gave yesterday to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Board of Visitors and later to the University District Development Corp. folks and other interested parties from the neighborhood. His main points: He believes the site has the best potential of the three to be successful, because of the appeal of proximity to UALR’s technological and intellectual assets, and he believes it best fulfills the legislation creating the park, by focusing on university research rather than tech startups. “Unfortunately, somewhere along the way public discussion changed from ‘research park’ to “technology park.” That change has had the effect of taking everyone’s eye off the ball. The point of departure for it all was research … university research … commercializing university research … ” He noted that the legislation that created the park authority the word research was used “92 times, including three times in the title of the act.”
Anderson repeated yesterday’s statement to the Board of Visitors — which voted to endorse the university’s offer to sell the land for the tech park — that the users of the park will be “the braniacs who care more about lab time than happy hour,” dispensing with the oft-stated advice to the board that it should attract young entrepreneurs with nightlife, bars, coffee and culture. He also said by locating adjacent to the campus, there could be savings in such shared services as security.
UALR’s proposal differs slightly from the one outlined by Anderson to the board in August — preliminary because he had not yet approached home owners about their willingness to sell. Since then, the borders of the proposed park have changed, fronting Fair Park only for one block, on land UALR already owns, and making that block into pocket park for the neighborhood. He said that change was to preserve the beauty of Fair Park.
The university’s proposal would be for a 21.9 acre park to be developed over 20 to 25 years. UALR won’t run the park, but sell its land — which it will move onto eventually should it not sell — to the authority. The 10 acres immediately available for development include a parking lot just east of Coleman Creek and the Stephens Center. UALR also owns 27 properties in the two blocks south of the parking long between 24th and 27th streets; 29 others are privately owned and 20 of those are rentals. One property has a lien on it, and the tech board would have to pay a higher price for that property.
Speaking of which: Anderson said the university would only sell if the board agreed to pay fair market value for homes according to federal guidelines, which also helps renters with relocation costs.
Anderson said UALR has sent out two letters and talked by phone to virtually every landowner in the proposed site. Only two homeowners are uninterested, he said, and they live on the north edge of the property.
Chesshir said the board will have to hire an outside party to negotiate real estate prices with potential sellers.