by Max Brantley
Toward the end of the meeting, without public notice and after distribution of the proposal to board members, City Director Dean Kumpuris said he would ask the board at its next meeting to approve a resolution calling for a six-month moratorium on site selection for the Little Rock Technology Park, the controversial real estate development that the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has long wanted to put on 30 acres or so in a predominantly black and low-income neighborhood between UAMS and UALR. Many residents don't want to lose their homes, particularly through the forced unfair bargaining of government condemnation.
The moratorium, Kumpuris reportedly explained, would ensure a thorough search for alternate sites. My reporter says Director Kenneth Richardson said the moratorium was unnecessary if the board would approve the measure he's already filed to prohibit use of eminent domain or tax money on land purchases. Of course. Which is why Kumpuris stepped up with a measure to give the City Board a way around voting on THAT little political bombshell. I should add the city can only suggest what the independent seven-member Tech Park Authority decides to do. It doesn't control its decisions, except to provide a couple of members and, well, yes, the money.
I now have photo images of the resolution. You'll see it suggests look at all alternatives within the corporate limits of Little Rock as well as property in the targeted area that might be available without use of eminent domain.
Here's the thing: A meaningful search would be a good thing. There's a lot of suitable property, from the Clinton Library neighborhood to the old Alltel campus. (Even better would be a meaningful evaluation of the wisdom of this expenditure by independent evaluators — not self-interested cheerleaders of the tech park idea, a flavor of the day among real estate and chambers around the country. The city has already committed $22 million and it's likely that taxpayers will be asked to put up $28 million more through bonds — meaning millions more in interest — to finish the office building to which tech companies will supposedly be drawn.)
But if the chamber's ground rules for site selection — including the arbitrary five-minute drive time between UAMS and UALR — guide the outcome at the end of the six-month search process, it won't have much meaning except as window dressing for the old plan to steamroller the neighborhood.
The low-income neighborhood has been targeted by the chamber at least since 2010 when the chamber had Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor seek (unsuccessfully) a $1.7 million federal earmark. Their proposal touted blight removal in the neighborhood. If the road winds back to the neighborhood, then it will be time to settle the pregnant legal question of whether the Arkansas Constitution has changed since the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in another case, clearly and eloquently, that the city of Little Rock couldn't take another piece of private property for a project aimed at luring private business. (Hint: It hasn't.) Arkansas once esteemed private property rights. But the framers never met a chamber of commerce touting a tech park.
PS: After mulling this overnight, I've decided Kumpuris' proposal is even emptier than I originally thought. The City Board has no control over Tech Park Authority. Director Gene Fortson's condescending remark about opponents demonstrates the business community's usual view that it should call shots and noisy little people should get lost. The decision was never going to happen quickly. Dickson Flake, the Chamber and Co. have ALWAYS wanted the same piece of ground for this project. They'll conclude it's the only option after rounding up the usual suspects. It's only the 21st century iteration of the failed industrial parks that litter Arkansas. There, too, civic leaders thought if taxpayers only built streets or warehouses or factory shells, business would come. They forget that ideas, vision, energy and private capital spell business success, not taxpayer handouts. UAMS and UALR are here now. Empty buildings are here now. If these were the elements for synergy, taxpayers need not spend another penny on the LR Chamber's pipedream. Here's what Fortson was quoted as saying in the D-G in support of Kumpuris. Short form: "We'll be the judge of what's good for dumb, poor people."
“This resolution is timely in that this process has taken on a life, an emotional level beyond the bounds of reason and history,” said at-large City Director Gene Fortson. “At this emotional level, the proposal is not being discussed reasonably as people who are reasonable should discuss it.”
If a bunch of chamber of commerce cutouts were proposing to cut a swath through a couple hundred homes in the Country Club area of the Heights to build an office building, I bet Gene Fortson would sound a touch unreasonable, too. But, see, those are rich, white people. Their homes mean more than those of poor minority people.
ALSO: After lengthy discussions, including a one-week delay from a scheduled vote last week, the Directors also approved a sewer rate increase. They didn't alter billing to be based on a four-month, rather than six-month, water usage cycle. The four-month plan was suggested by Director Stacy Hurst as way to potentially cut a break for water sprinkler use by those who don't use sprinkler meters. Sewer rates are based on water use, though water for lawns and gardens doesn't go into the sewer system. Wastewater officials had resisted yet another rejiggering of rates that a new computation basis would have required. Though the revenue need wouldn't have changed, the allocation of costs among customers would have.