Board members had hoped to whittle down the number of Little Rock locations for a possible technology park Wednesday but ended up with another site to consider.
The decision to add the Sears and former Brandon House Furniture buildings on University Avenue could lengthen the process that started in late 2011.
The Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board added the nearly 18-acre site, which crosses Interstate 630, at the board’s meeting Wednesday. The addition brings the list of finalists to four; the other three sites have been under study since October.
Technology park consultant Charles Dilks asked to make a presentation to the board at the last minute. He presented the property, a combination of two parcels owned by two different companies, as an alternative to the three other sties that he has criticized.
“Throughout this process in my letters I have expressed concerns about the properties being considered,” he said. “In my last letter I urged you to look for alternative sites because of those concerns. There is a site that could be made available… and [the Brandon House property] might be a great place to get started.”
Dilks has extensive experience as a consultant for technology and research parks, including the first successful technology park in Philadelphia. The authority board brought him back to study potential Little Rock locations several times since the process began.
The board narrowed its search from 23 commercial site proposals to three sites late last year.
The other remaining locations are:
About 10 acres between Eighth and Sixth streets and College and Collins streets, east of Interstate 30, with the option to buy or use additional acres north of the property.
About 84 acres at the corner of Asher and University avenues.
About 35 acres on John Barrow Road near the intersection of Interstate 630.
The proposed technology park is a partnership between UALR, the University of Arkansas for the Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the city of Little Rock. All four partners agreed to provide $125,000 in seed money to plan the park. The city of Little Rock also promised $22 million from the 2011 citywide sales-tax increase to fund part of the park’s construction.
The goal of the park is to attract public and private investment to develop the research going on in the city’s medical and educational facilities.
Dilks’ repeated concerns about the three earlier sites include their distance from the park’s partner institutions and the complications of multiple owners in two of the sites. He urged the board in his February report to find a different site.
“It is certainly worth putting on the list as another alternative,” board Chairman Mary Good said of the Sears-Brandon House site. “None of us have been terribly comfortable with the options we have, as you know. The Brandon House property was always a very attractive location, but it was just too small to consider.”
Jim Hathaway, senior vice president of Coldwell Banker Commercial, spoke to the board about the Sears property. He said the lease on the main Sears property was near its end and the 12.5-acre property had not yet been put on the market.
“I’ve been following this process closely and with great interest,” he said. ”I noted with interest your consultant’s report that none of the three most recent sites were suitable. As a result I wrote a memo to Charlie a week or so ago and brought to his attention this possibility. I asked if he thought it would be worthwhile to present, and he did.”
The lease on about 2.8 acres of the property where the auto center is located would not expire until 2017. Hathaway said the lease of the larger property includes a caveat that the smaller property’s lease can be ended early with a 12-month notice.
Dilks said he made the connection that property across Interstate 630 had been proposed as one of the 23 original commercial proposals. But, with only about 5 acres, it was discounted for being too small despite being in a “very attractive location.”
Hank Kelley of Flake & Kelley Commercial presented information on the Brandon House property Wednesday. He said the building’s structure is sound and could be renovated for research specific use almost immediately.
Dilks suggested that the Brandon House building could be used as a first phase with renovations, moving the formation of the park along quickly and cutting the need for construction.
Neither Hathaway nor Kelley knew an asking price for the properties, but both said the owners they represent were willing to negotiate lower asking prices for the authority board because of the tech park’s mission.
Kelley also said there was a possibility of obtaining a small piece of property, less than an acre, adjacent to the Brandon House site that is owned by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.
Jay Chesshir, a technology park board member and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, asked if the property owner of the Doctor’s building north of the Sears store would be willing to talk about sharing property.
That owner plans to build a parking structure next to a new surgery center on the property, Hathaway said. Dilks said it would make sense to ask if that parking structure could be shared.
Dilks and Hathaway also noted redevelopment around the proposed site in the Midtown neighborhood, with nearby amenities including shops, restaurants and hotels, and the short distance to the partnering institutions.
“The site is basically at the elbow between UAMS and UALR,” Hathaway said. “I drove to both institutions from the location five times… and not once did it take me more than four minutes and 20 seconds, and most of the time it was closer to 3 ½ minutes.”
Proponents of the other three sites were visibly agitated during the surprise addition to the board’s list of finalists. Rett Tucker of Moses Tucker Real Estate told the board during a public comment period that he had discussed Interstate 30 construction plans with the Highway Department regarding the downtown proposal.
“They’ve said they’re willing to plan the improvements in a way that would best benefit the tech park at this location,” he said.
Good said he should submit the information to the board.
“We will take that under advisement; there’s no question that would be a big plus,” she said.
“We are not throwing away the three sites we have. We’re simply adding to it.”
The board members will submit questions about the fourth site by the beginning of next week, and will likely hold a special meeting before the scheduled monthly April meeting.
Arkansas, Pages 11 on 03/14/2013
Print Headline: LR panel adds 4th site to list for possible technology park