by Max Brantley
I got a brief telephone report from Pulaski Tech trustee Mary Jane Rebick on a board meeting today to discuss a proposal from Little Rock officials that the two-year college build its new culinary and hotel management school on a vacant lot at Sixth and Main rather than, as planned, on property at the south campus on Interstate 30.
City officials think the school could be part of a dream to revive Main Street as a place for artists, young residents and dining and entertainment venues. Pulaski Tech has $15 million in the bank for a new school and solid estimates it can build the facility for that amount in Southwest Little Rock.
Rebick said one concern was addressed today. If Pulaski Tech built the school downtown, it would be fully self-contained. Students wouldn't have to go to other campuses for required classes. That, in turn, means more square footage and more cost, she said.
But the bigger concern is cost — perhaps $6 million more to build downtown, by one estimate.
Rebick said there was now a general understanding on both sides that the downtown location, with multiple stories and elevators on a smaller lot, would be more expensive, particularly with added classroom space. It could be as much as $3 to $4 million more, she told me. She said the city will study further on that, including possible sources of additional money. But the difference could be much greater. An estimate produced by independent consultants for the school estimated the Arkansas Culinary Institute would cost $15.4 million fully equipped on the South Campus, but $21.2 million downtown.
UPDATE: More details on the discussion from the Times' Cheree Franco, who was there:
Downtown developer Jimmy Moses suggested possibly renovating existing buildings as a means of saving money. He suggested the former Osco Drugstore, with 10,000 to 12,000 square feet, and the smaller Phillip's Men's Store, both just south of the vacant lot, as potential candidates. John Barnes, chairman of the trustee's academic affairs committee, mentioned that in his experience, renovation can be more expensive than building new. There was also discussion about exploring state funds for historical renovation and public grants.
According to Barnes, Pulaski Tech wants to pattern the culinary school after the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. "What we're proposing is our configuration for the CIA of Central Arkansas," he said. "As a tech school, we have few opportunities to strut our stuff to the general public. We want the culinary school to be a tourist destination."
"There's a reason 24 out of the top 26 culinary schools go to urban locations. I think you can only be truly great downtown," Moses said. "Greatness only happens for universities that think way out of the box. You all deserve to come downtown."
The current downtown proposal presented by the Pulaski Tech building committee, includes a ground floor hospitality room that would seat 175 and could host events. The addition of culinary shops and a bookstore was also mentioned as a way to increase revenue and draw passersby.
"This is not about Warren Stephens. Let's not make this about any personality. Let's make this about enriching Pulaski Tech, our students and the city," said Barnes, referring to the Stephens Inc. CEO who controls a number of parcels on Main Street but hasn't revealed any plans for development on them. His contribution to the culinary school would be a markdown on kitchen equipment, from the Viking Corporation in which he has a financial interest. The school's cost estimate figured the relative costs of that equipment at $2.75 million in Southwest Little Rock and $2.5 million downtown. In considering construction costs, Barnes added that "we're trying to get away from the lowest bidder. We want buildings that will be here in 90 years."
Pulaski Tech borrowed $12 million in September, which is costing roughly $57,000 in monthly interest. According to Barnes, this is why it's crucial that the project break ground by Jan. 1, whether they build downtown or on the south campus.
Barnes told city representatives that Pulaski Tech needs a cleared land title, 270 parking spaces, land leased at $1 a year and a commitment to cover any costs in excess of $15 million before it will agree to locate downtown.
A rendering by Taggart Architects shows a five-story glass and steel building with a rooftop deck.
"To bridge this gap [in finances] is a tremendous effort. It's going to take some time to put that plan together," said Phillip Tappan of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission. They tentatively scheduled a Dec. 20 meeting to hear the city's final concessions.