by Max Brantley
After days of lobbying by the Little Rock business establishment and a closing pitch by Mayor Mark Stodola, the Pulaski Tech Board of Trustees put off a decision at a special meeting this afternoon on whether to build a new facility for its growing culinary and hospitality school on the grounds of its Southwest Little Rock campus on Interstate 30 near the Saline County line. That had been the plan all along, but a proposal developed in October to build the facility downtown.
Downtown backers — including the Downtown Partnership, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and assorted major businessmen — had pressed Tech Board members in private lobbying sessions to accept an offer to help the school locate on what's now a parking lot at Sixth and Main across from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. The land, worth about $200,000, would be provided free. The city also promised free parking in a nearby deck and a price reduction on kitchen equipment from Warren Stephens' ownership in Viking kitchen equipment. The Peabody Hotel said it would underwrite some facilities for the hospitality portion of the curriculum.
The meeting opened on a energetic note. For over an hour Stodola and representatives from downtown organizations took the floor. Nearly everyone voiced the same sentiment — Pulaski Tech already has a good culinary school, but a downtown move would make it a great culinary school.
Initially only B.J. Wyrick, a City Board member for southwest Little Rock, spoke out against the downtown move. "I represent the district where the south campus is located," she said. "I found out about this proposed move through the media, not through the mayor or the board. We've worked hard to stabilize southwest Little Rock, and we appreciate the support of the South campus. Our business owners are also prepared to offer internships and student discounts. But I don't have any proposals for you all. You already know what you can do in southwest Little Rock."
As the meeting continued into its third hour, the board seemed to agree with Wyrick's final point. More than one board member mentioned that they would love to move downtown, but they felt much more comfortable with the financial aspects of the original plan.
Pulaski Tech had sold bonds to raise $15 million for the new building, to serve a student body of more than 400 that is expected to continue to grow. It got an estimate from a consultant that constructing a taller building downtown, and the difficulty of building on a small lot, would raise the cost to $21 million, a figure some downtown real estate people disputed.
Monte Hansen, general manager of the Peabody Hotel and a Pulaski Tech technology instructor, said his students were excited about the proposed move and even gathered a petition in support. But some Tech board members said they detected no groundswell of support from students for a move, and that hopes to build a daycare for students' children on the Southwest campus wouldn't be possible downtown.
The board also estimates $1.6 million in additional operating costs. Security would add $141,750 in annual costs, with student services and additional staff contributing to other costs. Stodola said the city would provide security through police.
Rebick said, "We can't keep discussing numbers. We don't know what they are. Until we open bids to contractors, architects and equipment manufacturers, we have nothing concrete to work with. The art district is yet to be developed. Pulaski Tech would be a catalyst, and that's why there's this big push for downtown. I have no doubt enrollment growth would follow. But I'm not sure it's the mission and vision of our school to be that catalyst. And I'm unwilling to take a risk with our students' money."
According to Barnes, Pulaski Tech is the most underfunded college in the state. Despite explosive growth in the past four years, the amount of state funding has remained the same. "Each time we vote on a building project, we pass those costs on to our students. It's painful to think we may have just priced someone out of a college education," he said.
Rebick also pointed out the elephant in the room—where was the city in August, when the school made it's initial bond offering? "We should have had these discussions before the bond issue. But we don't have time to talk now. We can't let the interest continue," she added.
Herzfeld made a motion to keep the South campus plan. The motion was seconded, but then Dedman made a substitute motion to take a few days to study the city's latest construction estimates and reconvene next week. Diane Bray seconded the substitute motion.
By a 4-3 vote, the Board delayed a final decision until sometime next week. Both William Page and John Barnes supported the delay — Barnes apologetically. Bray and Dedman said, as relatively new board members, they hadn't fully participated in the planning for the site. Bray has been viewed as a vote for the downtown site. Mary Jane Rebick, John Suskie and James Herzfeld wanted to vote today. Herzfeld supports the Southwest site and Rebick also has been a critic of the downtown move. Page, too, indicated he favored the Southwest site. Now the lobbying will continue.
A big issue has been whether the powerful business interests that sought a move downtown — they thought the school could be a tourist attraction, perhaps with a restaurant, and also provide potential tenants for rental housing in the downtown area — would retaliate if rebuffed. School officials fear they'll work against the county property tax the school is expected to seek next year to raise money for the school's explosive growth. It has more than 11,000 students on multiple campuses. Mayor Stodola told me weeks ago there had been no such threats against the school, but even a decision by businessmen who provide the bulk of tax campaign financing to do nothing on a tax campaign could be harmful to the school's cause.
"Are we going to have the support of everybody here if we don't go downtown?" asked secretary of the board, James Herzfeld. "We need your support. If we don't go downtown, it's a money issue."
Barnes asked Stodola, "Are you supporting millage for us even if we decide to stay on the South campus?"
Stodola avoided the question. "We haven't had to cross that bridge yet," he said.
"Our students are not kids. They're adults, they're not here to join fraternities and play around. They're here to get an education so they can support their families," Herzfeld added.
Construction planning is underway on the new culinary school. Work could start in March, one board member said.
— Cheree Franco contributed to this report.