The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning that C.J. Duvall, a member of the board governing the Little Rock Tech Park, has asked the board to review the circumstances by which a consortium of lenders decided to boot the Arkansas Federal Credit Union out of a group lending money for development of the downtown Tech Park.
He wants to know if the decision was fair. Easy answer: It wasn’t.
As has been reported before — first in Arkansas Business — bankers’ animus toward credit unions led a banker lobbyist to persuade Centennial Bank, the lead lender, to prevent the credit union from being among those making a profit off the loan to an agency so far entirely financed by public dollars, most of them from city sales taxes.
You get a real flavor for how Little Rock operates in this story. The Tech Park director is Brent Birch. His father, Bob, is regional manager of Centennial Bank, leader of the lending group. Dickson Flake, who dreamed up the tech park idea and threw the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce into the effort to pass a city sales tax that provided $21 million or so in grocery tax money to pay for his dream, sees no suggestion of conflict in this arrangement.
Flake also says the lending consortium’s decisions are not the responsibility of the Authority. It is just more or less a contractor. Handy cover for whatever bad deeds are done by people favored by the Tech Park. It’s the old Little Rock story: The response to all smelly decisions is “good guys like us only have your best interests at heart. Trust us.”
This is the insider politics that has long controlled Little Rock. A small group of wealthy white businessmen, concentrated in chamber of commerce leadership roles, calls the shots — some good shots, some not so. The insiders get the business. Sometimes, the outsiders get the shaft — particularly as the taxpayer-subsidized chamber lobbies against workers compensation benefits, against unions, against health care legislation, against progressive taxation and for the rest of the business agenda. In this case, the system allowed politics to determine who gets banking business from a public agency. But ….. we are assured as ever by the likes of Dickson Flake that there couldn’t be a thing wrong with such arrangements.
I wrote about this latest Tech Park funny business last month. I noted the irony of bankers complaining about credit unions’ somewhat more advantageous corporate tax structure being allowed to benefit from public business. Think about it: The Tech Park was ordered up according to the specifics of a tax-exempt organization that lobbies against the workers’ interest and is subsidized (until a recent lawsuit) by working stiffs’ sales tax pennies. I’m talking about the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. As ever, we are simply asked to trust them, because we surely know what high-minded fellows they are. And, it’s nothing the Tech Park board can do anything about anyway, they say. (Anybody who believes that has never met Authority Chair Mary Good.)
Thank goodness for C.J. Duvall, who’s stepped into the Tech Park’s ethical vacuum before. It was a similar scenario when last he served as the agency’s conscience. He saw “unilateral decision-making,” then aimed at fulfilling Dickson Flake’s idea of where the tech park should be located. Duvall’s resistance — and organized opposition from others — finally prompted a rethinking of the location.
My conclusion of the column last month still seems apt:
The tech park is a public enterprise. I’ve never thought it was a good idea for government to get into private business. Better to let the free market work, except to the extent that we build a city people want to live in. But if it must participate, it should treat all would-be participants equally. Members of the chamber of commerce shouldn’t hold a veto on who qualifies.