by Max Brantley
The board of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority is meeting today.
One item is a deadline for site selection for the train wreck of a $22 million city taxpayer-funded venture that doesn't yet know what it will be, where it will be or where any of the rest of the necessary money will come from. No private volunteers have emerged yet. In fact, except for token sums from UALR, UAMS and Children's Hospital (all publicly funded), nobody but beleaguered Little Rock taxpayers have emerged as financial supporters just yet.
UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, a quiet, low-key but straight-shooting sort, is trying again today to move the conversation in productive directions. Yesterday, he came up with a site idea that relies heavily on UALR property or adjacent property. It's worth consideration. It joins at least six others, including a circus of a War Memorial Park mixed-use development.
Today, the chancellor is focusing more on concept. He said the Board should visit Fayetteville. He noted that a company up there started in 100 square feet with two people and now is in 35,000 square feet with 35 employees making an average of $90,000. It took 16 years.
Do take a look. And be sure to take a look at the private commitment, in money, sweat and tears in Fayetteville.
In Little Rock, the wise fathers of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, already unconstitutionally subsidized by taxpayer money, think there's no problem that can't be solved by taking sales tax money from low-paid workers and throwing it at some private business venture. What kind of venture? Doesn't matter so long as you give the construction industry a little tribute by building a bunch of buildings somewhere, anywhere.
Leslie Peacock will be checking in with more on this meeting in a while.
Leslie mentions also that Anderson appears to be making it clear that proximity to UALR is critical to his institution's support. Does that mean a veto from his board rep on a downtown site?
Let's answer Max's question about Anderson first: After he made his presentation to the board about what university researchers are working on that can commercialized and repeated yesterday's announcement that UALR would like to see a 20.45-acre area adjacent to it as a site for the park, board members asked him what UALR's commitment would be if the property wasn't selected. "I am obliged to support the board's decision," Anderson said, "but I would expect that UALR as a sponsor would be given due consideration." And what would be the school's commitment? "I have said ... that when the time came," that is, after a building is constructed, UALR would do its best to step up and occupy space, which is what he told the Times recently. If the park was near, the school would consider moving its Center for Innovation and Commercialization there, Anderson said, but "if it's at a distance that makes it inconvenient, we wouldn't put it there."
Tonight's meeting — perhaps the longest to date — saw a chicken and egg debate in which many things were said that have needed to be said and which new intricacies of development to consider were wisely put before the board. Where to start?
A. What does the park need?
Kevin Zaffaroni, senior vice president at Acxiom Corp. for information services and technology and one of UAMS' representatives on the Little Rock Technology Park Authority board, talked like someone with a good business head unburdened by an ardent desire to see a technology park built. His takeaway from the board's recent visits to the Cortex park in St. Louis and the Wake Forest Innovation Center in Winston-Salem was that there were significant "pre-commitments" from interested parties prior to putting up buildings. "They said don't try to 'build it and they will come,' " Zaffaroni said, but instead get some idea of who would be might want to locate in the park and would they commit to being part of the park. Knowing that might help the board know "What do we need? 30 acres or 40,000 square feet?" and shift its focus from where to who.
Board member Dickson Flake and board chair Dr. Mary Good saw it differently. Flake said a building Zaffaroni referred to in St. Louis with such "pre-commitments" differed from what Little Rock would build in that it was partly occupied by an established business, rather than a more speculative startup, and Good said potential tenants won't be interested until they can see a building. 'People are attracted to something that is now, not something that might be."
B. Are city tax dollars building a park for the use of UAMS and UALR?
As the board began to talk about identifying the potential companies that UAMS and UALR are hoping to spin off, Anderson spoke up from the audience. "Parks are not built for universities but communities,' Anderson said. "You don't build a tech park for UALR and UAMS.
C. What has been forgotten in the discussion of putting up the park?
Dr. Marie Chow, the interim director of UAMS' commercialization arm BioVentures, said Zaffaroni's model — that an established business as an anchor was a good one. Chow also brought up an important consideration yet to be discussed: What will the park offer potential users in the way of infrastructure? If they are three miles away from the universities, how will they be self-sufficient? Who will repair the lab equipment? Manage human resources? "You have to realize there is a lot of failure" in new ventures, and the park should be able to provide services that will "de-risk" the investment made by the startups.
D. How much does the cost of building figure into the board's decision on where to locate the park?
That was C.J. Duvall's question. "We need to have a session about money," he said. It arose after realtor Jeff Hathaway's lengthy and, it must be said, tedious, presentation on the Sears property suggested in May that, he said, could accommodate 680,000 square feet of office space a 200 room hotel, a 20,000-foot retail center. (He then named listed every business in several block area, reading aloud a power-point list and pointing them out on a map.) How much? board member Bob Johnson asked. They are prepared to divulge a price immediately, Hathaway said, if the board is ready to "get into an agreement, conditional or otherwise." This was actually the overture to issue A., Zaffaroni's question on what the park's real needs are.
E. What's next?
Proponents of two other sites for the park proposed yesterday
will be allowed to present at the September meeting, the board decided. Dr. Good characterized the Vialta-Newmark Grubb proposal to build on the parking lots that surround War Memorial Stadium as an "off-the-wall proposition" and she said the Downtown Little Rock Partnership's suggestion to look at properties on Main Street was "not fleshed out." board member Jay Chesshir noted that he believes the War Memorial lots are owned by the state, and questioned whether the state had been consulted about the notion of building on them.
The board will take Anderson's advice and try to get to Fayetteville before the September meeting. And at some point, they may seek out Charles Dilks and the Wexford Science and Technology management company that assisted the board on its trip to Winston-Salem and St. Louis tech parks to consult further about the many questions they are now juggling.