by Max Brantley
The Little Rock Technology Park Authority, the Little Rock City Board in its hip pocket, will meet this afternoon to continue its site selection study and Chair Mary Good promised last night votes on a variety of specific things unannounced to the public beforehand about site selection procedures. (Though it's always subject to last-minute change, the City Board theoretically posts underlying specific proposals for its agenda in advance of its meeting. An accountable public agency does this. The Tech Park is accountable to no one, except in sum the UAMS/City/Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce partners, but the Chamber has called the shots from inception.)
Reaction to last night's City Board votes not to protect residential neighborhoods from mass destruction is already filtering in. Dr. Anika Whitfield, a resident of the neighborhood, wrote a letter to city officials saying, "Little Rock city government has shown itself tonight to be not for the people, not by the people, but for power and by wealth."
Robert Webb, bounced off the Housing Authority for raising questions about the city sales tax that is financing the tech park, wrote presciently before the vote: "... as history has shown, City Hall has demonstrated a pattern of voting against the best interest of residents to side with the Chamber of Commerce."
Kathy Wells, president of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, sent a warning to those targeted for property purchase that, even in a condemnation proceeding, a property owner in that neighborhood learned recently that he had to pay a seller's fee to real estate agent Dickson Flake, godfather of the Tech Park, in an earlier land acquisition scheme nearby. Be aware.
Another mid-city activist, Terence Bolden, circulated an e-mail urging election challenges to sitting board members on the "Chamber of Commerce puppet government" and an end to at-large city director elections for three members. He wrote: "If this issue of taking homes away from people is not enough motivation to get this done, then nothing ever will be!"
I hope to be able to post the full report of the UAMS College of Public Health study on the deleterious impact on human health, finances and community of a mass neighborhood removal project. Interesting, too, was its study of a Richmond, Va., research park often touted by local Tech Park partisans. It did NOT use eminent domain. It took almost no residential property. It acquired property in stages as needed rather than a mass removal. It has also experienced some financial problems since inception. I loved Robert Nunn's impassioned and eloquent plea to the board to consider the human dimension of the issue and the irony that people who supported a sales tax and pay it on groceries and lunch at Taco Bell now find their pennies will finance their homes' destruction.
Practical considerations pend heavily. City Manager Bruce Moore noted the city's promised $22 million will be accrued over 10 years. No lump sum now exists for Tech Park use. How will the Authority proceed with land acquisition and building construction on the promise of accrued money over a 10-year period (presuming it even survives a lawsuit over use of eminent domain to acquire property for lease to private interests)? Will the city borrow money — with attendant additional interest costs? Does the Tech Park really think strapped state and federal governments are going to shovel millions into this project, having already denied the Chamber of Commerce's earlier $1.7 million startup earmark from Congress? And where, finally, is the additional $25 to $30 million for initial construction going to come from? A private partner with private equity — such as the most successful of research parks have had — would be the best solution and allay the neighborhood fears that is just another typical Little Rock public-private partnership. The public pays, the private sector profits.
Much more to come
But to answer Mary Good's plaintive cry of a lack of trust: Trust must be deserved. An independent agency without a central controlling public authority has been delegated millions in public money and the power to take people's homes. It is run primarily by a political lobby, the Chamber, with a published agenda in favor of corporate citizens over individuals. It is governed by a seven-member board that includes three people directly from the Chamber, only one black person and only one woman. All live in silk stocking Little Rock neighborhoods except for a former Perry County senator, Bob Johnson, whose legislative career was distinguished by work to prevent environmental protection of Little Rock's water supply. It is unelected and essentially unaccountable even to the agencies that appointed the members, yet it has been given control of more city money than a number of accountable city departments receive to operate.
The city can withhold money, but it has not yet demonstrated that there are any circumstances under which it would do so. When the Tech Park board inevitably returns to the poor neighborhoods around UAMS and UALR as the preferred site for compulsory mass teardowns, the at-large directors who control the outcome of city votes (and depend on the business establishment for their campaign financial clout) are not likely to stand in the way judging by events last night. Relocation money, even if offered on top of "fair market value" for homes, is little salve for people uprooted and forced to find new homes in unfamiliar places, perhaps far removed from jobs.
PS — Anybody else remember West Rock?