The Little Rock Technology Park Authority board of directors had a come-to-Jesus meeting today, its members [most of them anyway] speaking candidly about confusion about what the board's goals are. Is it building a park for IT startups, with an incubator like the Iceberg in Fayetteville, where Ark Challenge minds meet, or for bio-med businesses? Or both? Should the authority consider building two parks? What about that fourth site recommended by consultant Charles Dilks in March? The back-and-forth was so wide-ranging and refreshing that board member C.J. Duvall was nearly ecstatic, exclaiming several times, "We're actually having a discussion!"
After a two-hour meeting, the board voted to adopt a motion made by member Jay Chessir that everyone re-read the 2009 Angle Report that started the technology park in motion and refresh their memories on the purpose for the park. Chessir said the frank discussion about the board's difficulties was "long overdue."
After the meeting, neither board chair Dr. Mary Good nor Chessir would credit the openly-expressed identity crisis to yesterday's letter to the board from Mayor Mark Stodola, who expressed "amazement" that the board was considering a fourth site, calling it "bewildering at best," and suggesting the board go back and do its homework to gain "as much knowledge as possible of likely technology-driven companies and disciplines willing to locate in the Tech Park" before deciding on a site.
Duvall got the ball rolling by observing that he had no longer had any faith in Dilks, who at the last meeting surprised the board by saying he had what he thought was the solution to all the board's problems with siting of the tech park: A fourth site, including unconnected Brandon House and Sears properties on University Avenue, one of which, as it turns out, already had an offer on it, the other was not available until 2017 and their total acreage less than half the 30 acres Dilks had told the board was a necessity in his first consultation over a year ago. Dilks, who wrote the board in January that the proposed downtown site, at 701 Collins St., was too small at 10 acres and the U-shape of the proposed location at Asher and University presented access problems across the site, and the site on John Barrow might not be able to expand, said in defense of the new alternative that there was new thinking that tech parks could be made more "compact, denser."
(Astonishingly, member Dickson Flake rose to Dilks' defense, saying "he's taken the same position since Day 1 on the sites," and was merely offering an idea that was a "tradeoff" to allow the tech park to be built close to its university sponsors, UAMS and UALR.)
Member Tom Butler, vice chancellor for administration and governmental affairs at UAMS, sounded a cautionary note, saying UAMS' financial situation had changed substantially since the tech park authority was formed, noting that federal sequestration had cost it $400,000. He said UAMS still supports the park, but there was a question about "do we really know what we need."
Chessir said he's been "scratching his head" thanks to discussions with people in town who didn't seem to know what the board's aims were. "It dawned on me why we're in this situation," he said. "We haven't done any education of the public since 2011," he said, or talked to "public officials and sponsors since 2009." "I have the utmost respect [for Dilks]," Chessir said, but he said it was time for the board to "step back from siting [discussions] and re-engage with with what got us started," the Angle report.
Adding flame to the fire were remarks by Tom Dalton and Jeff Stinson, who were asked to appear. Dalton, who heads up Accelerate Arkansas, and Stinson, who manages the Fund for Arkansas and is the director of the Innovation Center at UALR, talked about the start-up climate in Arkansas today, which is heating up in Northwest Arkansas and is mainly centered on information technology. Their discussion of the Ark Challenge and the way IT startups are born — in cheap, collaborative workspace by young people who want to be near restaurants and bars and coffee shops — triggered a lively debate about whether such incubators should be in a biotech park or whether two sites were needed. (Dalton corrected the board about its references to "tech" businesses, saying that the phrase was "off-putting" and that such new business are referred to as "knowledge-based" companies.)
Duvall added to Chessir's motion that the board will support efforts by Accelerate Arkansas and other angel funds to create a Central Arkansas Ark Challenge, and Dr. Good said she hoped it would be "the first activity for the tech park," though Dalton and Stinson would probably like to see it come to pass sooner than that.