by Max Brantley
The Little Rock Technology Park Authority indicates further today that it has heard the outcry from both residential neighborhoods and the city officials who control the money for the Tech Park about using a bit more consideration in choosing a site for the taxpayer-financed office building that is supposed to lure private businesses.
Today, it released a report from a UALR division on "best practices" that proponents of such facilities "must recognize in communicating with and involving potentially affected stakeholders in the process of site selection." The report also provides some strong cautionary words about such ventures.
UALR is a partner in the project with UAMS, the city and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, which dreamed the idea up, wrote the law, raised money to pass a city sales tax to pay for it and effectively controls the governing board. Early designs on three low-income majority black residential neighborhoods as the preferred site for the park stirred up a storm. Since then, the process has been reopened to consider other sites.
Today comes the report from the Institute of Government at UALR, which has been in a ticklish position as a neighbor to residential neighborhoods targeted for removal even as it is working to build its image as a promoter of racial healing in the community. The report looks at the best way to use urban neighborhoods, focusing on the three identified by the Tech Park Board before it opened the site competition to other ideas. It will be accepting proposals through the end of this month.
Here's the report. It says affected residents should be part of the process. (Comment: It would be better if they were also included on the governing board, rather than it being almost entirely from a country club ward.)
The report found two places — Baltimore and Oklahoma City — where inclusion of people in the process from the outset and good relocation packages (not just market value of property) produced generally satisfied residents. But consider what also was done for an Oklahoma City hospital research park project, in addition to generous relocation payments:
* A comprehensive urban renewal plan;
* the establishment of a Planned Urban Development (PUD) subdivision arrangement;
* a sizeable federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) ($4 million); and,
* the creation of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district.
Good commentary, too, on whether these projects work, as proponents claim they do, in spurring economic development. The UALR notes studies about job creation, but continues:
"... None of these studies addresses the question of whether these opportunities and benefits produce positive externalities for neighborhoods affected by these projects.
In any event, these opportunities do not accrue automatically to communities with research parks. Some research suggests that these parks either have no effect in attracting biotech industry, or may in fact be counter-productive or superfluous to fomenting research and development activities in a community. The primary reason that many research parks do not perform to expectations is due to research funding and commercialization revenues being heavily influenced by the “Top 15” universities that dominate technology transfer."
This brings up a long-running criticism. The city of Little Rock can't finance this thing alone. Unless the major education institutions or private enterprise put in big money, it will be a hard slog. And without demonstrated benefit to hundreds of displaced people, it becomes a huge question of whether the Tech Park board should bulldoze residential neighborhoods.
The report notes some successes. But, significantly, parks touted by backers of the Little Rock park — in Virginia and South Carolina — have run into difficulties, the report notes. Take Virginia:
For example, at the Virginia Bio-Tech Research Park, two of the three publicly-held companies have moved out. As recently as last year, the Virginia Bio-Tech Research Park was in negotiations with Virginia Commonwealth University to sell two of its buildings. Furthermore, much of the park’s space is “occupied by entities that have nothing to do with the original purpose of incubating biotech start-ups and spinning them loose. Very little ‘clustering,’ or big-time corporate contract work, has been achieved. At times, it’s difficult to tell what distinguishes the biotech park from any other office park.”
How to avoid problems? Thirteen "best practices" are listed: Seek consensus, develop trust, don't rush, have multiple options, seek volunteers for sites and, among others:
Fully compensate all negative impacts of a facility—Compensation should be negotiated with potentially affected stakeholders. Compensation agreements for potentially affected stakeholders may include property value guarantees, relocation assistance, housing vouchers for renters, job training, and ensuring that public transportation is readily accessible to dislocated stakeholders.
Make the host community better off—Proponents of siting a facility in a particular community should respond to the real needs of potentially affected stakeholders in that community. Comprehensive benefits packages offered to residents could include tax abatements, providing amenities to residents (e.g., parks, access to public transportation), or even direct cash payments to residents. The net effect is that the potentially affected stakeholders feel that they are better off than before the facility displaced them. Laws and Susskind suggest that “incentive payments or promises to take actions of various kinds should be made over and above commitments to mitigate impacts or compensate a community for impacts that cannot be mitigated.”
Citing other reports, the UALR report says tech park developers too often hunker down and defend decisions "rather than engaging stakeholders in a timely and meaningful way. This breeds even greater public cynicism."
Uh, yes. But perhaps reports such as UALR's — and a demonstrated effort to follow its suggestions — could make a difference.
Little Rock Technology Park Authority Chairman Dr. Mary Good today released ‘Site Selection Considerations for Urban Research Parks,’ a report issued by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Institute of Government.
The research highlights best practices that proponents of such facilities “must recognize in communicating with and involving potentially affected stakeholders in the process of site selection.”