by Max Brantley
The Little Rock sales tax increase included $22 million for a research park, established under legislation guided by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and to be run by the newly appointed Central Arkansas Technology Park Authority.
Since we're heading down that road and the money will be spent, I can only hope it is wildly successful in job creation. The record in the U.S. and the world for research parks is mixed. A key factor in success appears to be significant private investments. For now, only tax money is in the pot. So accountability for the public's investment is in order.
As I'd mentioned before, members of the authority's governing board were appointed before the tax was approved. The seven-member board (one woman, one black, nobody from outside the university-business establishment) includes a seat for the Chamber of Commerce, held by its executive director, Jay Chessir,. Appointees from the city of Little Rock, UAMS and UALR include the real estate developer, Dickson Flake, who was a driving force behind the chamber-commissioned report advocating the research park, and a chamber president, Eddie Drilling of AT&T.
I asked City Hall yesterday morning for information about the Authority board. Had it met or elected officers? Who would be in charge of preparing notice of meetings? Where would the authority's records be kept? My response was met with hours of silence and finally, a we-don't-really-know from Assistant City Manager Bryan Day. He suggested that I check with UALR or UAMS. (At the end of the day, I'd received nothing from either.) I was assured that City Hall WOULD be heavily involved at some point and the city remained committed to transparency.
I realized, belatedly, the obvious place to go for information was the Chamber of Commerce. Late in the day, Chessir responded to my e-mail. He said the Board had not yet met. He said the Chamber would arrange for the organizational meeting and that, for the time being, the chamber was the place to go for information. He did not answer my question about whether the city's annual $200,000 taxpayer subsidy to the chamber paid any of the cost of chamber groundwork so far on the research park — Chessir listed the $100,000 consultant report and $5,000 in legal fees. When tax money os used (and it was here — the consultant report was paid by UALR, UAMS, the city and the taxpayer-subsidized Chamber), I think all internal communications about the report, including how consultants were guided, should be open for inspection. The chamber thinks its tax subsidy, which provides general operating support, doesn't open any of its records to such inspection.
City Hall tells me in response to an FOI request that it has not a single document, e-mail, note or other record pertaining to the research park. Strange, isn't it? An idea supported by a very specific dollar amount in the tax package isn't backed by a single piece of paper? Where did Mayor Mark Stodola come up with the figure? Out of thin air?
I wondered whether the city had any discussions about where the rest of the money for the estimated $45 million project will come from. It's not just about land and buildings. Operational costs will be significant. The consultants' report outlines a good-sized payroll, beginning with a director making more than $100,000. UALR and UAMS have made it clear that they expect their primary contributions to be intellectual capital. Federal money will be sought, an iffy proposition these days. The consultant's report talks of potential private contributions and bond issues. Perhaps answers on finances are floating in the same cloud from which Mayor Stodola plucked the $22 million figure. Or maybe in the files at the private Chamber of Commerce.
Just a status report on city transparency: Murky so far.
UPDATE: Bryan Day this morning sent me a handful of items rounded up in further search of City Hall records, none helpful in outlining financial plans. They included e-mails the city answered to qualify for up to $40,000 in tax campaign contributions from local, state and national realtor lobby groups. Also, UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson responded in great detail this morning, not only on some of the mechanical questions, but on his long-view vision on a research park. He's reassuringly better informed than anybody from the city has been.