There are many questions about the technology park that Little Rock tax dollars are helping build somewhere between the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Where exactly will it be? Who will locate there? Who besides the taxpayers will pay for it? Will it succeed in generating jobs and inventions and royalties for its sponsoring institutions? If so, when?
But one thing's for sure: Because the Technology Park Authority has limited potential locations to residential areas minutes away from UAMS and UALR, people are going to lose their homes. Some of those people have lived in the three areas under consideration, all south of Interstate 630, for 25 years. The Authority has the right to exercise eminent domain, and those who don't negotiate a sale price with the Authority will be taken to court.
It's not just homes standing in the way of what the Authority board of directors promises will be progress. The Methodist Children's Home campus occupies the greater part of one of the three areas under consideration for the park. Another area wraps around an elementary school and a church and includes homes newly remodeled with federal grants meant to revitalize neighborhoods. The third — now mapped at 65 acres — could require removal of 272 occupied houses should the Authority decide to clear the entire area.
Each of the areas has its strengths and disadvantages, relating to access to highways, number of houses that will have to go and effect on traffic patterns. The civil engineering firm Crafton Tull has been hired by the Authority board to assess the three; its work is expected to be done in six months.
In the meantime, residents and organizations concerned about losing land are girding for battle. "Not For Sale" signs are going up in the Forest Hills neighborhood south of Interstate 630. The University District Partnership, a department of technology park sponsor UALR, has asked the Authority to exempt the parcel that would surround Good Counsel Catholic Church on 12th Street on three sides from consideration. The Methodist Children's Home, contiguous to land owned by UALR, is keeping mum, but its leadership notes recent investment in campus refurbishment.
Adding insult to injury is that the Authority's seven-member board — a public body created by state law and which will receive $22 million in taxpayer dollars — has no staff and is operated out of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, where two on staff have been handling park-related questions from the public. There was initial reluctance on the part of the chamber staff, apparently unclear on the state Freedom of Information law, to provide to the public the documents submitted by engineering firms in response to a request for proposals. A public meeting to select the firm from among five bidders was loosey-goosey, with only three members of the board — one of them on a phone — attending. They ranked the bidders, added their rankings to those provided by the absent members, announced the winner and tossed the ballots, so it is impossible to know how each board member ranked the bidders.
Asked when the board would hire a staff, Dickson Flake, a prominent commercial realtor who has emerged as the board's spokesman, said it would be some time in the future, when the park is built; the Authority hasn't got the budget to afford staff. The Authority's website, lrtechpark.com, went live this week; it includes links to the ANGLE feasibility study commissioned by the chamber, legislation and meeting information.
The only cash the Authority has in hand is $150,000 in seed funding, coming in equal contributions of $25,000 from UAMS, UALR, Arkansas Children's Hospital and the city and $50,000 from the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. UAMS, UALR, ACH and the city have pledged to provide another $100,000 each, for a total seed fund of $550,000.
The penny sales tax approved by voters last year will provide $22 million over 10 years for the park. The Authority estimated in 2010 that it would cost $50 million to acquire land, install infrastructure and build the first building. Because the tax money won't come in a lump sum, the Authority will have to take out loans to begin work on the property. Before the park can complete its first building, which will be 100,000 square feet, according to the 2010 estimate, the Authority will need another $27.4 million, which it expects will come in the form of $10 million from the state, perhaps $2.45 million in grants and $15 million in private investment. It wants to start up without debt.
The technology park raises many issues of public policy (and the Clinton School of Public Service is considering making its creation a potential study project for one of its students next year). Do the potential economic benefits down the road outweigh the dislocation of people and the cost to the taxpayers? Did the Authority choose its potential building sites wisely? Is it communicating with the affected communities?
As an example of what a technology park can do for a smaller city, the Authority board likes to point to the Virginia Bio-Technology Research Park in Richmond, a joint project of Virginia Commonwealth University, the City of Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia incorporated in 1992. Its first building opened in 1995 with two VCU research institutes and three private businesses. The park has more than 2,000 employees, 70 percent of which have tech school GEDs.
Yet, the Bio-Technology park is struggling to get support, and is seeking financial help from the state. Once a major financial supporter, VCU has tightened its belt and no longer funds the park.
As director of UAMS BioVentures, Authority board member Michael Douglas is, in a small way, already in the technology park business, and he believes that the park is a good idea that will one day generate millions of dollars and high-paying jobs for Arkansas. He paints such an optimistic picture that one can see the gleaming building rising over the interstate.
BioVentures, located in a 17,000-square-foot building on the UAMS campus that can house up to 12 companies, was created in 1998 to capitalize on research coming from UAMS scientists. It does that by, among other things, analyzing the technology being developed for novelty, purchasing patents, handling licensing, and matching startups with private equity groups.
As an example of a BioVentures start-up that could have a huge impact on Arkansas, Douglas talked about client company Myeloma Health, which has developed a genetics-based diagnostic test that allows doctors to personalize chemotherapy in the treatment of multiple-myeloma patients. Cancer centers from all over the world are using Myeloma Health's diagnostics, Douglas said.
Multiple myeloma is a rare cancer, however, and Myeloma Health is not making a profit, Douglas said. A subsidiary of Signal Genetics, the company had huge start-up costs — including $4 million in equipment — and has a payroll Douglas estimated at $1 million a year. But the company expects to grow by developing diagnostics to personalize therapies for other cancers. It is a prime candidate for the first building in the technology park, Douglas said, and would make Arkansas the home of a potentially international business generating high-tech jobs and that could attract other biotech businesses to the state.
Another candidate for the tech park is BioVentures' generic-drug developer EZRA Innovations, which also raised $4 million in private capital.
BioVentures has launched nine companies, among them the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which responds to emergencies like chemical spills and is based in North Little Rock; Contour Med, maker of breast protheses; Safe Foods Corp., which Douglas said has finally overcome regulatory hurdles and streamlined its business model, and Balm Innovations, makers of Omnibalm skin care products. It currently has nine client companies, including Myeloma Health and EZRA Innovations. It's been involved in a total of 44 startups.
A 2009 study by the Institute for Economic Advancement credited BioVentures with the creation of 422 jobs with annual wages of $21 million. Funding still outweighs revenues significantly — $76.3 million to $29.4 million in 2008. But Douglas said those numbers will eventually flip, as the technology park fills.
"Little Rock is the perfect size," Douglas said, for an entrepreneurial research park, and its central location an asset.
"This whole process is about wealth creation," Douglas said. "The noble part is delivering better health care to the masses."
But there are challenges, deficiencies in the labor market being the biggest that Douglas sees. He has talked to Pulaski Tech about tech job training, and said it might be a good idea for the second building to go up at the park to focus on education. The park, he said, could be a driver to "make demands on the community to improve the workforce."
Another challenge is capital. It won't be coming from UAMS, Douglas said; he does not believe UAMS will invest any more than the $125,000 it has committed to. UAMS capital is its brainpower it brings to high-tech research, not dollars.
However, a study by Angle Technologies commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce in 2009, anticipates that the public occupants of the first building — such as UAMS and UALR — will pay rent ranging from $495,000 to $990,000 a year.
Dickson Flake's involvement with the chamber's push to build a research park in Little Rock started in 2006, when he was asked to be a member of a task force. "That brief committee assignment became a career," he joked. (Flake keeps careful track of his time and so knows how many hours he's spent on the technology park: 1,800.) Legislation to create a technology park authority was passed in 2007 and amended in 2009 to allow sponsors.
The Authority envisions a park that in phase one will have one 100,000-square-foot building with room for 13 more. Flake thinks the second building could follow quickly if the Authority doesn't have to take on debt to build the park and complete the first building.
The state "doesn't have enough angel or venture capital, but we do have some," Flake said, specifically the Fund for Arkansas' Future, composed of angel investors (who provide capital in return for stock and a seat on the board of the company) and headed by Jeff Stinson. Angel investors get a break on state income taxes based on the amount of their investment.
Flake thinks it will take 10 years for the technology park to become truly established. Joe Busby, an active member of the Fair Park Neighborhood Association and member of the board of the University District Development Corp., fears that's too long. "There's a real possibility that there will be a chain link fence around a grass lot for 20 years," he said.
The 65-acre tract in Forest Hills that the Authority is considering as a possible location for the park is bounded by Interstate 630 on the north, Monroe Street on the west, Elm Street on the east and 12th street on the south. The Forest Hills Neighborhood Association is working hard to make sure the area isn't turned to a grassy field.
At the association's monthly meeting in February, longtime resident Rohn Muse showed an Institute for Justice film, "Not For Sale," about ways to fight the taking of property by eminent domain. He held up an example of a red "Not For Sale" sign that residents can put in their yards.
"I'm not telling anyone not to sell," Muse told the gathering of about 20 residents. What he was saying was, if you have to, make sure you get a fair price.
William Riles, 66, who's lived for 23 years at 901 Lewis, wants to fight. "Those guys with eminent domain, they'll go through low-income neighborhoods and just gobble them up."
A week later, Muse and Busby addressed a class at UAMS' College of Public Health class that's studying the potential health impact on dislocated residents. "There will be people who will become homeless," Muse told the class. The amount they get for their homes — they're promised "fair market value" — isn't likely to be enough to buy a house of similar quality in another neighborhood, once mortgages are paid off — especially for retired people living on a fixed income, as many people in Forest Hills are.
The homes in Forest Hills are in various states of repair and maybe a quarter of them are rental properties. It makes the area an easy target, the neighborhood association believes. "We are not important to them," Muse, who's lived at 822 Lewis St. for 25 years, said about the Authority. But they're not going down without a fight. Muse and another quarter-century resident, Daniel Hopwood, have distributed flyers to the neighbors alerting them that they'll be taking photos of their houses for a historic district application.
At the inaugural meeting of the city's CENT (Citizens Evaluation of New Tax) committee, Dr. Anika Whitfield, a podiatrist representing Ward 2, raised concerns about the location of the park. "If UAMS owns Ray Winder, why are we talking about relocation?" she asked. Mayor Mark Stodola replied that while the city does not control the Authority, "we are sensitive to that issue," and that the city would urge the Authority board to act fairly.
City Director Ken Richardson, who represents Ward 2, in which all three proposed areas are located, is supportive of the tech park "conceptually," he said. But, he added, if people must be dislocated, he wants them to get a fair deal. He said the park Authority should work with the 12th Street Corridor initiative, which is building new homes with National Stabilization Program funds. Twelfth Street is getting a new police substation and the Central Arkansas Library System's new children's library will be just north of the corridor. Richardson's hoping that it might be possible for dislocated residents to move into homes being rehabbed by NSP funds. "I want something done with the community rather than to the community," he said.
Ron Copeland, the director of the University District Partnership, has written Authority board member Dr. Mary Good about the district's concerns over the site that includes Good Counsel Church. The 38.7-acre site is bounded by Madison Heights on the east, an alley between Fair Park and South Tyler on the west and 18th on the south, but the boundaries for the area have been drawn to exclude Good Counsel and Franklin Elementary School. The only 12th street frontage is at Jackson Street, between Good Counsel and Madison Heights. The rest of the northern boundary is an alley between 12th and 13th.
This area seems least likely for development because of its odd boundaries and poor access to a major road.
"From the University District standpoint, the Good Counsel site contains the best housing stock in the neighborhood," Copeland wrote Good. The University District Development Corp. has been purchasing and rehabbing houses in the 1500 block of Harrison for its First Time Homebuyer Program. "I hope the site evaluation process quickly eliminates the Good Counsel site so that we can attract homebuyer prospects for our projects when they are completed in the spring," Copeland wrote.
The site would require the removal of 123 homes, according to Crafton Tull.
Copeland favors the site encompassing the Methodist Children's Home, since it's largely under one owner, would affect fewer houses and connects with the UALR campus.
The area that includes the Methodist Children's Home is 59.6 acres bounded by 19th Street on the north, the alley between Taylor and Fair Park streets on the east, University Avenue on the west and between 23rd and 24th streets on the south. The site includes the largest undeveloped area — the Methodist Children's Home campus — and would require the removal of 113 dwellings, the fewest number of all three sites.
Andy Altom, chief executive officer of Methodist Family Health, which operates the Methodist Children's Home, said the campus serves 140 residents and has 187 employees. Methodist Family Health considered selling the property at one time but decided it would be cheaper to improve the facility instead. It has built a wrought iron security fence to match that of UALR, replaced all the windows in the buildings and added new heating and air conditioning, replaced the gym floor and put new roofs on all the facilities. It hopes to build a psychiatric residence facility on the southern part of the campus, now undeveloped.
"We're not going to stop what we're doing," Altom said; capital improvements will continue while the Authority evaluates the three areas.
Both the Good Counsel and Methodist Children's Home sites, as they've come to be known as, fall within the boundaries of the vigorous and vocal Fair Park Neighborhood Association. More than 50 people attended the January meeting at which the park was discussed and the neighborhood's online group has 400 or so members.
Though no one likes the notion of displacing people, "change is inevitable," said association president Brian Kennerly, whose reasonableness may stem in part from the fact that he is an employee of UALR. But Kennerly thinks the technology park, if designed in concert with the neighborhood, could help make it a safer place to live. "We would like something green," he said, a park-like park that is "ecologically friendly." He hopes the park could "create some synergy" with other organizations that could revitalize the neighborhood.
Still, he said, "We'd prefer to keep our neighborhood intact."
The Central Arkansas Library System is building a children's library south of Interstate 630, just west of the Forest Hills neighborhood. The library, a teaching garden and greenhouse, walking trails and, in the future, an arboretum that would focus on Arkansas's various ecosystems, will be on 30 acres between Madison Street and Jonesboro Drive, extending south to 10th Street.
So CALS has been already been down the displacement road. To clear the land for the library, CALS had to buy between 20 and 25 pieces of property, director Bobby Roberts said. Most of the lots with homes sold in the $25,000 range; the most expensive was around $57,000. Empty lots were $5,000 to $6,000. CALS had to exercise its right of eminent domain with only one property owner. He said CALS paid a premium price, above the appraised value of the property.
Moving people out of their homes "is not something I am looking forward to," Authority member Flake said. The Authority wants to pay "as fair a price as possible." But at the same time, Flake said, "It's not our money. It's taxpayer money. We have to be good stewards of that money."
"We'll try to be understanding," he added.
Flake and other members of the Authority board plan to meet with the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at the Willie L. Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center at 12th and Pine Streets, and the Fair Park Neighborhood Association at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 17, at U.S. Pizza, 3307 Fair Park Blvd.