by Max Brantley
The Pulaski Tech Board of Trustees decided today they couldn't make the numbers work to locate a new facility for its growing culinary and hotel management curriculum downtown, rather than on its South campus as originally planned.
The vote was 5-2 for the South campus, with Diane Bray and Ronald Dedman favoring downtown. The others are John Suskie, John Barnes, Mary Jane Rebick, William Page and James Herzfeld. Page lives in Maumelle and Herzfeld in Benton. The rest live in Little Rock. Page and Herzfeld were absent from the meeting, but they cast their votes ahead of time with Chairman Suskie. CORRECTION: We incorrectly said earlier that Dedman, who's been on the board five years, was a relatively new board member.
The Board looked again at a proposal from Mayor Mark Stodola that suggested the school could make a facility work at Sixth and Main, on a current parking lot, within the $15 million the school has raised through a bond issue to build on the campus on Interstate 30 near the Saline County line in Southwest Little Rock.
But a budget to make the building work would have removed most public spaces and constricted so-called "gross" space, such as hallways and other circulation areas.
Stodola took exception to school figures. He provided his own. He also said in an e-mail to the Times, "It appears many had their minds made up long ago. Their facts and figures were different again today, but the issue is over. ... They could have had all the space they wanted with a minor variance in the gross up factor. Dividing up the culinary school in the future doesn’t seem very prudent or realistic, as [trustee John] Barnes has said, considering the unique equipment costs involved in outfitting a culinary school."
Last week Stodola presented figures in favor of less gross space, in accordance with many other downtown buildings. But an architect who's been working with the Tech Board, Jerry Currence with Taggart Architecture, said that more gross space is needed for a building with significant kitchen and mechanical areas. Arkansas doesn't have set standards, but other states regulate the amount of gross space for similar facilities at 1.6 to 1.85 percent. Currence's plans factor in 1.6 percent. Last week, Stodola's presentation suggested trimming to 1.3 percent.
Final cuts would have left only a 75-seat room for public use, which, according to Barnes, eliminates the entire downtown argument. "If we eliminate the roof deck, which cuts off about $300,000, we don't have any public spaces. Without public spaces, we have no reason to go downtown," he said.
Changes cut 4,420 square feet and brought the building within budget reach, at least before formal estimates, but the big stumbling block, members of the Board said, were additional operating costs downtown — an estimated $800,000 a year for maintenance and personnel. This estimate was down from $1.6 million in additional operating fees presented at last week's meeting. However, security costs at over $140,000 were still an issue. Pulaski Tech provides security both inside and outside its facilities, and in a recent survey, students said security is their biggest concern. The culinary school operates six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. — a schedule that requires three officers.
The only source of revenue at Pulaski Tech are student fees, and this additional money would cost $3 per semester hour for each one of the school's almost 12,000 students, Barnes said. This could add anywhere from $80 to $100 in annual tuition costs per student. The school has other development plans and was reluctant to hit all students for a fee increase to pay for a curriculum for about 500 students.
The Board had been close to opting for the South campus at its last meeting, but extended the consideration for further review of the pitch for downtown by a hard lobbying group of public and private officials, the Downtown Partnership and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Suskie, particularly, wanted the board's rationale to be transparent. "I told the board, put these numbers on paper. That will take the emotion out of this. These numbers don't lie." According to Suskie, the board worked all weekend, whittling away space. "Should we have one bathroom or two? One computer room or two? We really tried to figure this out," he added.
The board distributed a list of comparative tuition prices from other urban culinary schools. Tuition at CIA in Hyde Park, New York is $59,470 per year. Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, is $50,814. Pulaski Tech's annual tuition is $16,623.
In closing, Stodola emphasized that a downtown location had been considered in light of students' interests, and that downtown's interests were "incidental." He distributed a letter to that effect, endorsed by 48 businesses, institutions and individuals.
"We came to you because we understood that there was a receptivity to downtown, and we were told we had 30 days to make a presentation. No one on this side of the table knew that some previous decision had been made," Stodola said, in reference to the building committee's master plan, which was in place prior to downtown negotiations and proposed building on the south campus. "If that had been made more certain, maybe we wouldn't be where we are today...I'm disappointed, I disagree with the board. Reasonable minds can disagree."
He also addressed Tech concerns that a decision for the South campus would prompt retaliation from city leaders in an expected coming campaign for a college property tax election. Stodola's response was short of warm toward the idea. "It's such a preliminary issue, no one even knows what the millage request is going to be. I think it's safe to say that a lot of people were disappointed with the decision."
Suskie said that the master plan had been presented to the city when they began negotiations. "I'm sorry if you missed that," he addressed the mayor. "I know how hard you work for downtown."
"I work for the whole city," Stodola replied.
Barnes apologized to Stodola for moments when the "war got heated."
"Since I've been on this board, for 20 years, it's been my dream to have a presence of Pulaski Tech downtown, he added.
— Cheree Franco reported and wrote substantial portions of this article.