- Vic Snyder and Charles Dilks
In the back and forth last week between a consultant for the Little Rock Technology Park board and boosters of various sites they'd like the board to choose for the park, only a few times did a crucial issue raise its scary head: Money.
Charles Dilks, the consultant who winnowed to four the 23 sites proposed as alternatives to three residential areas that had been considered, referred in public hearings held Oct. 23 and 24 with the public to what he considers "best practices" in park development: Starting small with private, federal, state and local dollars, funding commitments from sponsoring universities and anchor institutions on board.
The Little Rock park has, so far, only a pledge of local investment, $20 million over 10 years from a half-penny sales tax levied since the beginning of 2012, less than half the estimated $50 million cost of building the first structure at the park. This is a far cry from the Virginia Bio-Technology Research Park, which is listed on the Little Rock park's website as a comparable venture. That park was a joint venture of Virginia Commonwealth University, the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia. It opened in 1995 with two VCU research institutes on its campus. The Piedmont Triad Research Park, another comparable site listed on the Little Rock park's website, has as its anchor tenant the Wake Forest School of Medicine's Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.
In a section on financial feasibility, the Angle Technology study — commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce in 2007 in its effort to get the tech park ball rolling and in which Dilks participated — states that without commitments from private companies, the sponsoring universities are going to have to be the financial backbone of the initial construction at the park, by renting half of the building. Universities' "rental commitment" would "range from $495,000 to $990,000 a year," based on an annual rental commitment of $19.75 per square foot for 25,000 to 50,000 square feet, the plan says. Tech park plans call for construction of a 100,000-square-foot building in the first phase. "As a matter of best practice, sponsoring institutions have to take leadership in moving [the park] forward," Dilks told the Arkansas Times. That means the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock must make to a financial commitment "to space or providing land and importantly putting activities in the park that are particularly attractive." That would include a building or a "new research institute." He added, "as to what would make sense here, that would depend on the site. ... I don't know the specifics of what is possible here."
The city sales tax is financing the purchase of the land and infrastructure improvements. The tech park board is looking for another $10 million from the state, $15 million in private donations and $1.45 million in grants.
The commitment from UALR, UAMS, the city of Little Rock and Arkansas Children's Hospital (which is not a sponsor but has pledged financial support) is $500,000, or $125,000 each.
But more than that will not be forthcoming from UAMS, said Chancellor Dan Rahn. "It's conceivable if we have continued research and commercial potential that there could be an extension [of UAMS' campus incubator Bioventures] into the tech park ... but that's really private space. There's no envisioning putting laboratories in the park."
Even with front-end funding, the Richmond park and two other parks on the Little Rock tech park website — Innovista in South Carolina and the Presbyterian Health Foundation research park in Oklahoma City —have had their share of struggles. VCU pulled its funding from Virginia Bio-Technology and the park has turned for help to the state, which has legislated several generous tax breaks for biotech firms. Innovista ran out of money in 2009 and couldn't complete construction of its first buildings until last year. The Presbyterian Health Foundation in Oklahoma City, its finances strained by park costs to the point it could no longer make grants, is selling its research park to the University of Oklahoma.
At the two "facilitated hearings" moderated by a neutral Vic Snyder, the former congressman for the 2nd District and a doctor, proponents for a 10-acre property on Collins Street east of Interstate 30 downtown, for a 30- to 40-acre site on John Barrow Road and for 84 acres at Asher and University commended the Authority board for dropping the Forest Hills and Fair Park neighborhoods and touted the benefits of their sites. (There was no representative for the former Alltel building in Riverdale. Formal presentations for all four sites are scheduled at the tech park board's November meeting.) Despite all the amenities of downtown and enthusiastic backers of the John Barrow site and the proximity to UALR of the Asher Avenue site, Dilks repeatedly noted the fault in their distance to sponsors — even the Asher site, which Dilks said was so close to UALR (right across the street) that UAMS and Arkansas Children's Hospital might feel alienated and lose interest in the park. Only the neighborhood sites — those the city maintains are "off the table" — meet the "five-minute" factor that Dilks and the tech park board have maintained is "the highest success factor," as Dilks wrote in his report to the board, "because the likelihood and willingness of researchers to engage in technology developments in the park can be facilitated or constrained by park location." "There's nothing magical about a five-minute travel time," UAMS' Rahn said Wednesday. "I like the downtown proposal, next to the Clinton School [for Public Policy] and Heifer [International], its proximity to 30 and 630." He likes the Riverdale site as well, which would just be a matter of "going over the hill" from UAMS.
Pressed by a UALR professor on whether a location across the interstate from UAMS (like the Forest Hills neighborhood site identified by Dickson Flake as a possibility, but off the table) would have the same disadvantage as the Asher site, Dilks said yes, but added, "If I had my choice, [the park] would be between the two [UAMS and UALR] and connect them."
What if the board chooses a site that UAMS — which has only two votes on the board — doesn't like? "That would be really awkward, right?" Rahn said. "We're the sponsor but the board is the governing board. It would be hard for us to sponsor a direction that doesn't serve the needs" of the community UAMS serves. The chancellor believes, for that reason, that the board and tech park sponsors will eventually reach consensus.
Another questioner asked Dilks what he was being paid for his work in Little Rock. He said he didn't know if that was an appropriate question and mentioned the chamber, but was cut off by Flake, who said it was a matter of public record. Apparently, Dilks wasn't clear on that fact.