by Max Brantley
The growing unease in neighborhoods targeted by businessman Dickson Flake's hand-picked consultant for the project — generally territory between UAMS and UALR in Oak Forest and nearby neighborhoods — has reached two of the public partners on the project — the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and UALR.
Makes sense. The three sites targeted for the Little Rock Technology Park are heavily residential, low-income neighborhoods with a significant minority population. Too date, the business community-controlled board of the Tech Authority hasn't expressed a great deal of empathy for residents' resistance to being uprooted from long-time homes. Condemnation proceeds, experience proves, aren't nearly sufficient to replace homesteads and uprooted neighborhoods.
The issue has become increasingly sensitive for the two college campuses, each of which has two representatives on the Authority board. UAMS depends heavily on government-financed business from low-income people for its revenue stream and many of its 11,000 or so workers live nearby. UALR has committed not only to a broad effort to revitalize the neighborhood in which it sits, but has taken pride in vigorous work on community racial attitudes and ethnic minority issues. It is not exactly being a good neighbor or racially sensitive to bulldoze hundreds of houses in a minority neighborhood to build an office building with acres of grounds to insulate it from any neighborhood that remains. Particularly when $22 million from a regressive sales tax opposed by voters in those neighborhoods is going to pay the front-end cost.
UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn and UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson have heard the neighbors. They've asked for time on the May 16 Technology Park Authority Board meeting to talk about neighborhood concerns. They still wholeheartedly support the tech park, they said, but they've heard the concerns of neighbors who fear a negative impact, particularly lack of fair compensation for loss of homes. Said their letter in part:
"We hope to be able to work with you to develop a plan to not only better communicate about the site selection and park development with residents of the three areas under consideration, but to include them in the process."
This is a step beyond what's been offered so far. You'll remember when retired UALR dean Mary Good, chair of the Authority board, said they'd do a neighborhood impact statement AFTER the site had been selected. Flake was resistant to a resident's call for studying demographics of the area, preferring to conserve public tax money for the office palace he and the Regional Chamber of Commerce hope to build. Good has also to date not wanted to talk about alternatives to the three sites identified by a consultant chosen by Flake (not in an open public RFP process).
Another idea for the chancellors. How about some sensitivity to accountability? How about putting a pure public agency — not a private agency merely financed by tax dollars, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce — in charge of the public records and agenda of this publicly financed project?
SPEAKING OF LACK OF ACCOUTABILITY: Arkansas Children's Hospital, a key player in the "synergies" envisioned in this project, tells me it is not covered by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and will not supply any internal information about its support for the publicly financed Little Rock Technology Park, except confirming its five-year commitment to pay $25,000 a year into the kitty. I think they're wrong.
Children's Hospital is the beneficiary of a Pulaski County property tax millage. It is directly supported by this public money. Moreover, without the state's enormous contributions in Medicaid and other support through agreements with UAMS, it could not exist at all. The institution's wonderful work with sick children does not give it a free pass from accountability.