Leslie Newell Peacock is covering today's meeting of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority. Members of the authority have now voluntarily filed financial interest statements and they eventually will be available on-line. Until the law is changed to require such filing, there is, of course, no recourse against members who don't file or don't file complete or accurate reports.
Here's what I wanted to note right away:
Three of the four Occupy Little Rock protesters who were arrested today went straight to the meeting of the Tech Park Authority. If there's a better place to stand up to corporate dominance of the politica process, I can't think of one. This taxpayer-financed agency was created and is controlled and administered by the corporate-agenda lobby known as the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, taxpayer-subsidized but public unaccountable. The new agency is looking hungrily at booting hundreds of low-income minority citizens from their homes. Documents dislodged by a Freedom of Information Act request only contribute to circumstantial evidence that a neighborhood across Interstate 630 from UAMS is in the crosshairs.
UPDATE: It was a good day for the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, with a real estate attorney rising from the audience to tell the board that he represents 40 people with property in the Forest Hills neighborhood, the area just south of Interstate 630 under consideration for the park, and they look forward to selling. No fireworks from Occupy Little Rock, no angry outbursts from residents, support for one of the sites from the audience and Authority members UAMS and UALR got to cover their rears on negative feedback from neighborhoods.
Jason Bodler, who owns seven properties himself within the 40.8 acres defined by Crafton Tull Engineers in their site evaluation of Forest Hills, told the board that his clients "all enthusiastically in support of the park in Site 3," the engineer's name for the area.
After Bodler spoke, Mike Ashcraft also rose to say he has 10 rental properties in Site 3 and he was pleased with the way the Central Arkansas Library System negotiated with him on the sale of property the library bought for the construction of the Children's Library going up on Jonesboro Drive.
And in response to the next speaker, David Oyster, the board said the construction of the park would put a damper on crime and raise property values.
The remarks came after the board heard UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn and UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson speak in favor of the board's listening to the concerns of residents who could lose their homes to the park, Rahn a little more forcefully than Anderson. Rahn said he'd received multiple letters from residents of the Forest Hills and Fair Park neighborhoods who could be affected by the Authority's choice and that he'd driven through the neighborhoods. While he did see homes in disrepair, Rahn said, there were more that were well cared for, and he asked the board to give "equal attention to the social impact on families" as it does other considerations in siting the park. Rahn also called the desire of UAMS and UALR that the park be five minutes from either institution a "stumbling block" and said that the five-minute rule should not 'take priority" over the interests of residents. He said he would welcome a suggestion of an alternative location.
Anderson, on the other hand, urged the board to quickly decide which of the three sites currently under consideration it wants for the park while at the same time inviting other property suggestions. "Location matters," Anderson said, but "these residents and students and businesses are our neighbors ... and should not bear undue hardship." (He also noted the university's efforts to restore the neighborhood with its University Community Development Partnership.) Anderson predicted that once the board decides on a site — whether one of the three or a competing plan put forth — most owners will be ready to sell. He also said the board should give details on how the acquisitions will proceed. "This is not a time to hold the cards close to your chest."
The board nodded, said thanks and that was that, though Authority member Jay Chesshir said he'd like to see housing options that exist assembled from all various sources that may exist and disseminated to a public committee. Dr. Mary Good did not indicate directly that she's unwilling to entertain any other options, but did point out that the Authority had spent $100,000 to get advice on the best three sites. She said the board needs to "move expeditiously and get the uncertainty off the table."
Jerry Kelso of Crafton Tull then presented conceptual plans for the park as it might be built on Site 1, land near UALR that includes the Methodist Children's Home and some private residences; Site 2, just north of site one and south of 12th street, which is the least likely site to be chosen given the fact that it is gerrymandered around a church and a school; and Site 3, Forest Hills. He did not give cost estimates; he said those would come at the next meeting, set for June 20. For economy's sake, Crafton Tull's plans take into consideration the lay of the land, putting buildings on top of high ground and creating lakes at low points, except for Site 1, which has Coleman Creek running through it. The plans will be posted to the Authority's website.
Also theoretically on the site are the statements of financial interest provided by the Authority board, though I confess I was unable to find them there. (UPDATE: Flake said Thursday that he did not put his statement on the website and did not plan to unless Dr. Good requested it.) Board members agreed to file the statements (though not in the same place, apparently — Good's with the city and Flake's with the county clerk, for example) after initially declining to provide them, citing the fact that the Authority enabling legislation omitted that requirement, common to boards and commissions. Their refusal was met with huge displeasure and at the urging of Authority members like Rahn, the board relented.
The sole feather-ruffling came when City Director Ken Richardson asked the board why it chose Regions Bank to set up an account for Authority funds, which the board announced today it would do. Why not a locally owned bank? he asked. Chessir said that since the Chamber has accounts at Regions, and that the Authority money has so far been held in Chamber accounts, he thought it would be easy to transfer to a new account at the same bank. If the public wishes them to set up the account in a local bank, Chessir said, he thought the board would OK that.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott asked, but got no answer, on how the board might respond to the chancellors' requests.