Mayor Mark Stodola, in his angry denunciations of my criticism of his economic development slush fund, insists I have it all wrong about the sway the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce holds over city government, their annual $200,000 unaccounted-for handout of taxpayer money notwithstanding.
This says it all. The board that will oversee the research park to be created by the city of Little Rock, UAMS and UALR (if state taxpayers prove as willing as the mayor hopes city taxpayers will be to funnel money from those two strapped public institutions to match Little Rock's proposed $22 million gift) will be run by a board that includes a statutory — statutory — representative for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commmerce.
There's no seat for the AFL-CIO. Not for Arkansas Community Organizations. Not for the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods. Only the Chamber gets a vote of its own at this supposedly public table. Their vote answers ultimately to no one but the good suits. It is a breathtaking handout of public authority to a private entity that has demonstrated repeatedly its support for public policy contrary to the public interest. And for what? To pay the chamber to lobby for more tax increases on poor people, as it did last night?
There's much more to be studied about this idea. The private sector contribution to this plan is still a question mark, though it's been a vital part of successful operations elsewhere. In Little Rock — and increasingly in Arkansas — free money created by sales taxes on groceries, blue jeans, refrigerators and other necessities of life have come to be viewed by the business community as the appropriate way to encourage private enterprise. A tax on rich people or corporations to create economic development funds? Don't hold your breath. The free market? PRIVATE enterprise? What's that? Hell, why not just turn over total control of the park authority to the chamber. They effectively have it already.
City hall advocate Clayton Johnson urges a hard look at the amount of state money spent now on the UAMS BioVentures program and the return on that investment. Operating money for this new "park" — presuming voters approve — is an issue as yet unaddressed.
UPDATE: I'm behind the times. If the city announced it, I missed it, but members have already been appointed to the seven-member board that will make the big decisions on the Central Arkansas Technology Park Authority. City reps include Dickson Flake, who wrote the report for the Chamber on the strategy to build this thing. The chamber, identified as a lead sponsor in the news release, will be represented by CEO Jay Chesshir, a proven enemy of accountability when it comes to his private organization's taxpayer handout. I expect no better from him in this role. You won't find a working stiff on this board. It's a boardroom kind of thing. Nothing for you to see here, except your tax dollars being spent. Ed Drilling, a chamber president, is one of the two UAMS reps. The fix is in.
The first seven members have been named to the newly created Central Arkansas Technology Park Authority. An initiative of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, City of Little Rock, University of Arkansas at Little RockUniversity of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the Authority will create the region's first technology park, anticipated to be a major economic driver for the next thirty years.
Appointed by Mayor Mark Stodola to represent the City of Little Rock are L. Dickson Flake (Colliers International) and C. J. Duvall (Allied Wireless Communications).
Appointed by Chancellor Dan Rahn to represent the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences are Ed Drilling (AT&T) and Dr. Michael Douglas (UAMS BioVentures).
Appointed by Chancellor Joel Anderson to represent the University of Arkansas at Little Rock are Dr. Mary L. Good (UALR Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology) and Former State Senator Bob Johnson.
Representing the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is its president and CEO Jay Chesshir.
Over the past several years, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, under the leadership of Dr. Douglas, chairman of the Chamber's Technology Task Force, and Mr. Flake, chairman of the Chamber's Technology Park Committee (TPC), have been working to develop a Technology Park in Central Arkansas.
Technology Parks are vital in (1) enhancing the commercialization of a community's research and innovation activity and (2) housing established research-based companies which can benefit from close proximity to research institutions. They can provide a significant economic impact in both employment and payroll creation.
On September 20, 2010, the TPC moved one step closer toward that goal as the City of Little Rock's Board of Directors passed an ordinance to authorize the Mayor, City Manager and City Clerk to enter into an agreement for the creation of the Central Arkansas Technology Park Authority. Representing the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is its president and CEO Jay Chesshir.
It was another important step in a long and detailed process. The TPC was formed in the spring of 2005 and immediately began conducting case studies of other technology parks throughout the country. In 2006, the committee established criteria for a Central Arkansas Technology Park based on information gathered through its case studies.
Using the TPC's criteria, the staff at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission helped in drafting what would become SB 830. Under the leadership of Governor Beebe, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and bill sponsors Senator Shane Broadway and Representative Allen Maxwell, SB830 passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Beebe as Act 1045 of 2007. Act 1045 authorizes the formation of research park authorities and gives the authorities the requested powers to operate.
Once the legislation was in place, the TPC raised the necessary funds to engage a consulting team and obtain a report evaluating the justification for a Technology Park in Central Arkansas, projecting its financing requirements and site selection criteria and providing site examples. While site examples have been identified by the consultant, it will be the responsibility of the Central Arkansas Technology Park Authority to identify and select the location for the Park.
With the City Ordinance passed this month, the formation of the Authority is now being implemented. The sponsors of the Authority (UAMS, UALR and now, the City of Little Rock) will soon begin making their appointments. By law, the Authority can have no fewer than five members and no more than seven. The Chancellors of each sponsor university will have two Authority appointments, the Mayor will have two, and the three co-sponsors jointly will have one. Once those individuals are in place, the Authority will be organized. Implementation of Phase I park development requires 1) acquisition of land, 2) master planning and construction of the site infrastructure, and 3) development of the first building. Budget projections for those three components amount to approximately $45 million.