Further thoughts on Leslie Peacock’s report last night on the Little Rock Technology Park Authority’s struggle to get off the ground more than two years after city voters approved a sales tax increase that is supposed to contribute $22 million to the effort.
UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson presented the most coherent, practical and sound presentation yet on what the park should be and where it should be. UALR has much of the ground already in hand. It would dislocate, at some long future time, two to nine unwilling homeowners. Even then, the land has long been targeted for university expansion. He proposes to pay even renters to relocate. In the short run, there’d be no residential disruptions. It would be not only close but adjoining UALR and not far from UAMS. Anderson proposes, as the state law that created the authority anticipates, university laboratories. He dismisses the idea of use of vacant buildings downtown as incubators for tech businesses as contrary to the intended focus of applied science research.
Anderson is serious, thorough, sane, rational and thoughtful. Too bad all those elements weren’t present in the build-it-and-somebody-will-come thinking that inaugurated this project, misconceived when it wasn’t poorly conceived at the outset.
I confess to finding allure in the sexier idea of plugging holes downtown with tech entrepreneurs drawn to a burgeoning urban lifestyle as well as business development. Like or hate either vision, though, it says a lot about the incoherence of this project that it requires, at this late date, some sound schooling from Chancellor Anderson on what the law is supposed to be about.
And as praiseworthy as Anderson’s work has been, I’d be remiss if I didn’t raise this question:
Is the city of Little Rock really going to get in the business of underwriting applied science laboratories at a state university? Isn’t that the state’s responsibility?
It is a slippery and steep slope for the city to edge down.
It comes with practical concerns, which Anderson acknowledged. He doesn’t want to own this building. And who can blame him? It will require a grounds crew, a janitorial crew, utilities, management. Who’s going to pay for that? Rent will account for some of that. Can UALR and UAMS afford to rent space? At least one person remarked last night on the hope for rent-free space. Really? Rent-free? Is the city going to have to pay to operate the building? And about that $22 million. It’s not now available in a lump sum, but is supposed to accumulate over 10 years. But there was talk of building a 150,000-square-foot building that would open debt-free? How? Isn’t that $15 million or so?
If I’d trust anybody in what has been, until Joel Anderson’s bracing emergence in recent weeks, a sorry spectacle of wishful thinking, petty bickering and leadership vacuum, it is Joel Anderson. But it’s still worth some reflection on the muddled city thinking that got us here and the need for better thinking than shown earlier on where we’re going.