The board of the Little Rock Technology Park, which two years ago thought that by now it would be demolishing 30 acres of neighborhood between the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, talked today about getting something small up and running quickly to take advantage of what board chair Mary Good called start-up "momentum in Central Arkansas."
Good also announced that the board, Mayor Mark Stodola and consultant Charles Dilks have arranged to visit technology parks in Winston/Salem and St. Louis on July 10 and 11. I'm sure they made those arrangements completely within the parameters of the Freedom of Information Act they labor under, though a standing request for documentation has produced nothing of late.
Getting something done fast was exactly what UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn wanted to hear: He told the board today that the university, which is a partner in the project with UALR and the city of Little Rock, would like the board to take advantage of "available resources" to get company development going while the board figures out its long-range plans for building a tech park, which could take three or four years.
Tech park deconstruction started two meetings ago, when Dilks, who did not like any of the three sites the board was evaluating for the park as neighborhood-destruction alternatives, sprang a fourth idea on the board of his own devising, the Sears and Brandon House properties. Together they offered half the acreage Dilks formerly insisted on, and suddenly the clouds parted. Just what they heck were they doing, the board wondered aloud at its last, come-to-Jesus meeting. Were they focusing in a biotech park? An IT park? Both? Where? How big? (Questions they thought they had answered years ago, when the Angle feasibility report to the Chamber of Commerce got the ball rolling.)
Board member and Chamber of Commerce head Jay Chessir told the board that he is meeting with private investors to bring the ARK Challenge, the technology business accelerator in Fayetteville, to Little Rock and hopes to find a 3,000 to 5,000 square foot collaborative space, along the lines of Fayetteville's Iceberg, by summer's end. He said the project is independent of the tech park, but he welcomed tech board participation at any level. Good does not see the incubator as competition, she said after the meeting, but rather as a feeder entity for the future tech park.
But Good also said that she thought the park out to start out with an IT hotel, a place where young entrepreneurs could lease space and bounce ideas off each other, with a gym maybe. It would be cheaper than biotech space — Rahn told the board that the specialized laboratories that UAMS hopes will be eventually created for its Bioventures graduates would cost around $300 a square foot to build, for example. Good said it makes sense to start with an IT focus, given information from Innovate Arkansas and the Fund for Arkansas that 35 percent of their client companies are information technology, compared to 20 percent life sciences.
As it happens, Jim Hathaway, representing the owner of the Sears site, also told the board today that there will be space for lease in a new building going up on Doctors Hospital property next to Sears, where its parking deck was once located. A surgical center will occupy one floor, but there will be three others to lease and the finish out on those floors could start in five months or so. That would add more square footage to the park should the board decide to buy the Sears building in the future. What timing!
Dr. Marie Chow, the interim director of Bioventures, gave a presentation to the board on what UAMS incubator has been able to do in its 15 years and what it needs for the future to create new medical technology companies. The four-story building on the UAMS campus is fully occupied, and has had to turn down a request for space, she said. It's been able to spin off nine companies at the "real operating stage" and is working with a total of 27 companies in various stages of development. Rahn added that Bioventures last year brought in more than its operating expenses were for the first time. Chow said UAMS hopes that in the next five to 10 years, it will have graduated 10 to 15 life sciences companies from the incubator to the tech park or alternative space.