The board of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority took two steps forward and one step back tonight when they tied on a vote to select an “investigator/negotiator” real estate firm from four applicants.
Eager to move forward, the board (over the objection of member Tom Butler) opted to vote on without hearing from the four companies that answered RFQs for the job. But Dickson Flake abstained from voting, since his brother’s company, Flake Kelley, was one of the contenders for the job, and the board ended up split 3-3, with C.J. Duvall, Butler and Kevin Zaffaroni voting for Moses Tucker and Bob Johnson, Jay Chesshir and chair Mary Good voting for Ark Commercial. (The fourth candidate was Stephens and Associates, a latecomer who answered the RFQ Dec. 27.) Butler got his wish: The board will now hear presentations from the candidates at a special meeting Jan. 15.
For a minute it looked bad for Moses Tucker, as Johnson (via Jawbone) fired off a volley at the realtors (though he didn’t name them), suggesting that if the board were to choose them, it would look like cronyism to the public. “There’s a fundamental … flaw in choosing an interest that has the most aggressive lobby in the downtown area as anyone,” Johnson said. He added that he doubted they would work well with consultant Charles Dilks, who will also be in on the process.
The board members looked a tad uncomfortable at the suggestion that Moses Tucker would be petulant in working with a consultant who didn’t like a previous site proposal the realtors made to the board. Zaffaroni shook his head, and said he had not been lobbied by Moses Tucker (thus naming the company Johnson was referring to), and Duvall bristled slightly at the suggestion that he would be involved in “cronyism.”
Good, whose term expired in December but who was reappointed to serve until June 30 by University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Joel Anderson, said Johnson had a point. “If you have people who have major activity there [downtown] then I think there will be … the public will say we haven’t gotten an independent view of what’s possible. Nothing to do with quality of people. Any one of them can do a good job. But perceived conflict is an issue with the public. Remember, we have a lot of unhappy campers out there who have sites they… wanted looked at” that the board rejected.
Chesshir, when he cast his vote for Ark Commercial, prefaced it by saying he agreed that the board could have a credibility problem with the public.
But Zaffaroni said he shared Moses Tucker’s vision for downtown and said he wanted the board to work with a company that could get the public excited about idea, “make it so attractive that people want to be a part of that.” It was an oblique reference to the fact that three of the four board members (Johnson, Flake, Good) didn’t vote to locate the park downtown and still don’t like the idea.
Like Zaffaroni, Duvall said, “I’m thinking of a broad vision [for developing a park downtown] so I’m voting for Moses Tucker.”
Zaffaroni, who said at the last meeting that it was time to get the tech park show on the road, was clearly frustrated at the delay.
Hank Kelley of Flake Kelley rose to say that his firm would withdraw its RFQ so Dickson Flake could vote and break the tie. Good looked at Mayor Mark Stodola, who was in attendance, and asked him what he thought of such a move. He said the board should stick with their plan to allow the realtors to make their case. Kelley said the company would withdraw in any case.
The board also heard from Chesshir on progress on leasing 117 Main St. to accommodate Innovate Arkansas’s Ark Challenge tech accelerator. Chesshir said the Arkansas Venture Center, a startup accelerator company formed by Mike Steely and Lee Watson, was interested in using space for training programs they hope to offer. The 4,000 square feet at 117 Main St. might not be enough and the authority board may have to look at leasing additional space to accommodate rising interest in startup world.
Flake, acknowledging the authority was moving on leasing space as part of the “rush to compete for an accelerator” in Central Arkansas, asked Chesshir to include operating costs in addition to leasing terms when they are hammered out. Chesshir said he was close to completing the negotiations; the board will lease the space from building owner Stephens Inc. and then sublease to Innovate Arkansas. Flake asked Stodola if he thought the tax dollars being set aside for park construction could be spent on leasing, and Stodola said the city attorney advised that they could.
The board also heartily agreed it was time to hire an employee who could conduct the business of the park — including attracting businesses — and said money would have to be found for that as well. Each of the sponsors — the city of Little Rock, the UALR and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences — as well as Arkansas Children’s Hospital have pledged to give $125,000 in start up costs.