I've been calling around this week with a number of questions about the idea and have learned this much — a committee of the Tech Board has been appointed to study the offer and evaluate it within the next month. The first meaningful comparison will be with existing plans that call for a new building to be built for the culinary program, currently enrolling about 400, at the South campus on Interstate 30 near the Saline County line. It would be on the north side of the existing building, a converted former shopping mall.
City fathers, understandably, would like to put more people in downtown Little Rock. I think they see a cooking school as even something of a potential tourist attraction. It could be that, with a classy restaurant used to train students; an interesting building design, and perhaps even banquet facilities geared to existing (Arkansas Rep) and future (art galleries and such) neighborhood attractions.
Whatever else happens, I hope that the city establishment doesn't take its frequent heavy-handed approach and punish Pulaski Tech if the deal doesn't work out. Everyone should support the college's likely coming request for a property tax. Pulaski Tech needs it to support its rapid growth and keep tuition in reach for students. It's one of a handful of two-year colleges in Arkansas without a dedicated local revenue stream.
What could argue against a move of the culinary school? Well, first, Pulaski Tech has $15 million in the bank from a bond issue and the free land at its South campus to build a new school. Pulaski Tech builds utilitarian buildings, not palaces, to hold down student costs. It's not likely to depart from that proven formula. The land proposed downtown would require a multi-story building, with elevators. It likely would be more expensive to build than what's planned at the current campus. Staging of construction will be harder because of the lack of spare ground. Does the city, the Metrocentre Improvement District or the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission have the means or desire to contribute more money to the project if the money Tech has on hand isn't enough?
Then there are the students. They'd be uprooted from an existing location. It's not clear they'd be better served by a downtown location, even if the parking deck promises to match their current free parking. Money for Central Arkansas Transit to add a bus route to that part of town HAS been budgeted for 2012, I was told yesterday by City Manager Bruce Moore. But that won't solve a new problem created by a new culinary school location. Those students don't take culinary courses exclusively. They also take other classes in the same South facility. A move of cooking classes would split their school day between two distant locations. It is, first, about students, isn't it?
Everyone is interested in moving quickly.