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Tech-park selection still a go, board says

by Claudia Lauer | June 21, 2012 at 5:58 a.m.

— The Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board voted Wednesday to move forward with existing siteselection plans, ignoring large portions of a Little Rock Board of Directors request to slow down and look at sites that “can be obtained without the objections of residents.”

Mary Good, chairman of the authority board, said Wednesday that the board will continue with a plan to narrow the three residential sites under consideration down to one before accepting alternate-site suggestions.

The three sites are largely in residential areas, and while some property owners have said they want to sell their rental homes, many residents have objected loudly to the sites.

Engineering consultants also gave the board cost estimates Wednesday for site work such as putting in utilities and demolishing houses. There was only a $175,000 difference between the most and least expensive of the multimillion-dollar costs at each of the three sites.

The authority board did not eliminate any sites Wednesday in its search for a place to locate the park with its 10 multistory buildings that would house researchers from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

City directors spent hours Tuesday night hearing community concerns and debating two ordinances aimed at helping residents in the areas being studied for the park’s location.

City directors settled in a split vote to defer an ordinance that would ban the authority board from using the promised $22 million in city sales-tax revenue to acquire houses through eminent domain — the right of a public entity to take private land for public use through compensation.

City directors approved a second ordinance requesting that the authority board take six months to “engage in an extensive study” of other potential locations before the city releases the sales-tax money.

The ordinance asked that the authority board report back to city directors in six months with a list of potential sites suitable for the park and true to the “spirit of the ordinance.”

It also included a caveat that those locations should be obtainable without residents’ objections.

“The board has already made that decision, and we were not unhappy with that [ordinance] at all,” Good said.

“We’ve incorporated input from our other two partners [UALR and UAMS] at our last meeting, and we heard from our other partner last night. Incorporating that input won’t be hard since it’s something we had planned to do anyway.”

There were some differences between the city ordinance and the plans the authority moved forward with Wednesday, including the elimination of sites where residents objected.

Many residents said they were in favor of the deferred eminent-domain ordinance because it held the sales-tax dollars as leverage to steer the park away from residential areas. Several residents said they were afraid the sixmonth ordinance would not be followed by the authority board or deter its plans to locate the park in a residential area.

Good said Tuesday night that the authority board would vote to incorporate parts of the city’s request into the site-selection process and also vote on a way to involve neighbors more.

On Wednesday, Good and other authority board members said they believed the authority board was largely already taking the actions requested by city directors.

Board member Jay Chesshir, the chief executive officer and president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the board announced plans in May to accept alternatesite suggestions as part of its process.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott, who has a home in one of the three potential locations, said she wasn’t sure whether the board planned to look for alternative sites on its own, as was requested in the ordinance.

“Most of the answers I received centered on what the average resident has to do to have other sites that aren’t their homes considered for this park,” she said.

“The authority is the entity with the resources, and I was hoping that there could be a parallel process to the one that was used to select these three sites to find at least a fourth nonresidential site to consider.”

Good said in response to one of Elliott’s questions that she doubted the board could take the time and resources to do an exhaustive search on its own. The sites under consideration were included in a previous consulting firm report funded by the authority.

She said the board would announce the criteria for alternate sites and would post acceptable submissions on the authority’s website. Ultimately, any acceptable alternates would be compared with the final site chosen from the three residential areas studied.

Those sites are:

60 acres bounded by South University Avenue on the west, Taylor Street on the east, Coleman Creek on the south to West 19th Street on the north.

39 acres bounded by Tyler Street on the west, Jackson Street on the east, West 18th Street on the south to West 13th Street on the north.

40 acres bounded by Jonesboro Drive on the west, Peyton Street on the east, Interstate 630 on the north and West 11th Street on the south.

Crafton and Tull, the engineering firm studying those sites, submitted a preliminary report on necessary infrastructure changes and cost estimates Wednesday.

According to the firm’s estimates, the site on University Avenue would cost $7.725 million to prepare; the site preparation on Tyler Street would cost $7.895 million;, and the site bounded by Interstate 630 would cost $7.865 million.

Those estimates include grading, moving utilities, clearing land and demolition of existing properties.

The site on Interstate 630 has about 50 more houses, and demolition costs would be highest of the three at more than $2 million. The University Avenue property would be second in demolition costs because of the buildings on the Methodist Children’s Home property.

“It’s a coin toss in terms of where we come out in dollars and cents,” Good said. “I’m surprised all three were basically the same in terms of cost. I would not have predicted that.”

Authority members said the board would look at other factors, including how many rental homes and owner-occupied homes are in the three areas, as well as a breakdown of demographics and other factors.

A group of UAMS students and faculty members presented a preliminary survey of demographics and neighbors Wednesday, and said it plans on submitting more information over the next few weeks.

The full engineering report will be available on the authority’s website in a few weeks, once it is submitted in writing from Crafton and Tull.

The first phase of the project, which includes one building and the basic infrastructure, is estimated to cost $54 million, and additional funding has not been identified.

Front Section, Pages 1 on 06/21/2012

Print Headline: Tech-park selection still a go, board says

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