It was just a year and a month ago when the Little Rock Technology Park Authority board voted to locate the taxpayer-funded enterprise on Main Street downtown. I say just a year because of the two-year circuitous route the board took — through midtown, down to the river, back south and out west — to get to the location vote. But things are moving far more quickly now, with nine (not named) companies, one especially eager, and the Arkansas Venture Center seeking Tech Park real estate.
Lee Watson, co-founder of AVC, a business accelerator now housed in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce,
to the board tonight in the unadorned 8,000-square-foot space it leases on the ground floor of the Block Two building on Markham Street, across from the Statehouse Convention Center. The ARK Challenge had been using the space; it will be available in January. The city of Little Rock, a sponsor of the park, is providing the rent for the space ($95,616), which owned by a Colorado company.
Watson is proposing that AVC offer its incubator, accelerator and start-up programming in exchange for free rent. Watson announced that AVC will offer in Code School for programming engineers that will lead to “full stack” training under Mark Doderer; its sponsorship comes from Acxiom, FIS, the AEDC, Arkansas Children’s Hospital (where wife Marci Doderer is CEO) and Mainstream Technologies. He said the AVC, which is helping in the start-up of seven companies, is running out of space at the chamber.
Park board member Jay Chesshir, who is also on the board of AVC, told his fellow members that he thinks it’s a smart move for the park to move AVC into the park as a way to feed what the accelerator calls “early-stage entrepreneurs” and new companies into the park. “Just building space isn’t enough,” Chesshir said, “if you don’t drive that with programs. … You can build the prettiest building and it may not work.”
Chair Dr. Mary Good asked what the utilities in the building were; Tech Park Director Brent Birch said they ran about $800 a month, a sum she had a hard time believing until he told her he wrote the checks. She said AVC could pay the utility bills out of the revenues it generates from its classes and memberships, and Lee Watson agreed.
AVC could have new revenue, too: Gov. Mike Beebe has offered a grant of $500,000 to the Venture Center if it can match it. If the value of the Tech Park space lease is figured in, AVC is close to its match.
Throwing a small spanner into the works, Chesshir noted that one of the companies that have approached him and Birch wants 3,000 square feet of walled, securable space in the Markham building, and that he heard today the owner is mad that the park has not yet committed to that. Which raised questions: How many companies can AVC put in the building? What about other companies that want to locate there that would pay rent? Is there room for both AVC classes, etc., start-ups and companies? Can the Authority afford to build out leasable space in what is now a bare, open building?
Chesshir observed that if the board could move quickly on obtaining space on Main Street, which it is working to do, it could meet the needs of companies needing built-out securable space. The board is negotiating with Stephens Inc. on the purchase of several properties, including what is called the Annex in the 500 block of Main St. The 28,600-square-foot building is empty now, and ready for occupancy on its top floors.
At board member Tom Butler’s suggestion, the board decided it needed to hammer out how the space could be divided into leased and free space, who would manage the building and other details. It will meet again next Wednesday at the chamber to continue the discussion on what is actually a good problem for the park: Interest in using it.