by Max Brantley
Mayor Mark Stodola has written a tough letter to members of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority board with questions — and expressed "amazement" — about the late arrival of an alternative site on University Avenue consisting of two pieces of property several blocks apart.
The consideration of the new site is "bewildering at best," Stodola writes, on account of how the nearby Interstate 630 and access roads would make pedestrian travel between unconnected parcels difficult. Pedestrian access was once a goal for the development, though so was a 30-acre site and contiguous property, two more failings of the late-arriving site.
But Stodola also plunges into a developing larger controversy. What, exactly, is the idea behind this technology park? Is it an incubator for new businesses? Is it more lab space for two state institutions, UALR and UAMS, to be funded by city sales tax dollars? What's the need? Who will use it?
More importantly, in my mind, the fundamental purpose of the Technology Park, and what types of businesses may likely choose to locate there, has also been thrown into question. It seems extremely speculative and imprudent to purchase property and build offices with wet and dry lab space without first knowing who has expressed a serious interest in occupying the space.
lt would seem to me that gaining as much knowledge as possible of likely technology-driven companies and disciplines willing to locate in the Tech Park is a critical first step prior to deciding both location and size. I do not believe enough specific research and investigation has been conducted in this regard.
Stodola's letter is pointed and full of pertinent questions. Might I say that these questions also would have been well-put back when city taxpayers were being sold a $21 million investment in a grand "economic development" pig in a poke during the sales tax election. But this was a Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce-driven payback to the chamber (specifically Dickson Flake, godfather of the idea) for the Chamber's handling of the secretly run campaign to pass the sales tax. The chamber's director, Jay Chesshir, is a Tech Park board member and the chamber has been serving as the de facto administrative office (and not a very good one) of this public body.
When I asked Stodola for a copy of his letter late last night, he responded also with an answer to my question about what moved him to act:
The prompt came from the latest suggestion of a location. Frankly, as my letter suggests, the Authority would have been much better served to do the hard research first. So let's hope they get around to it now.
C.J. Duvall, a Tech Park Board member who had earlier objected to the "unilateral" decision making by Board chair Mary Good in the siting process, commented to me on Stodola's letter in also sending a copy:
I said this to Mary back in February but was shut out. Now it cannot be ignored.
Stodola now suggests a shift from studying sites to studying likely occupants of the facility before any land is purchased with city tax money.
I would recommend that at a minimum the Authority retain a “high tech” business consultancy firm to give us specific advice on what companies, existing and future, we are likely to land. Particularly, since five major pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring research at UAMS and four are at Children’s Hospital, we should be knowledgeable of whether they have developed businesses in cities where they have ongoing research and where current technology parks exist or whether these facilities have been moved away to existing operations elsewhere. Knowledge of this nature would seem to be a likely predictor of what would happen here.
In addition to the biomedical and nanotechnology fields, we should also request information in related high tech fields such as information technology, alternative energy, nanomedicine, and food processing and safety. I am sure there are several other specific targets that would be identified.
The timing of this is perhaps not perfect with Stodola's call yesterday for consideration of whether members of the City Board are deserving of a pay raise of perhaps 50 percent from the $12,000 paid since 1994. The directors engineered and promised to spend more than $20 million of a regressive sales tax increase on a project that was waved along on typical Chamber of Commerce promises of a mighty stream of prosperity. There was never sufficient consideration of the specific and worthwhile questions the mayor has now decided are worth addressing. Better later than never, however.