When my son, who's now 22, was much younger, he was fortunate to have an excellent baseball coach in Little Rock's Junior Deputy League. That coach loved the game and had once played baseball at the University of Arkansas. The coach was Brent Birch, whose job these days is executive director of the Little Rock Technology Park.
Birch was intense in the very best sense of that word. He knew the intricacies of the sport, he knew how to teach fundamentals to boys, and he knew how far to push them in order to get their maximum effort. My wife and I would smile at Birch's sayings during games. One of his favorite things to yell was: "Let's show a sense of urgency."
I see that sense of urgency on display these days as Birch tries to figure out how to raise $26 million for the tech park's second phase. It's important for the entire state that he succeed.
Back in 2007, during Mike Beebe's first year as governor, the Arkansas Legislature passed what's known as the Research Park Authority Act. The act recognized the need for facilities to support technology-based entrepreneurs. In September 2010, the Little Rock Technology Park Authority was created with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the city of Little Rock as sponsors. The authority is a nonprofit public corporation given the task of acquiring, developing and managing a research and technology center.
The cities that succeed in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century will be the ones that can offer the facilities, programming and financing necessary to attract technology-based ventures. The debate went on for months about where the tech park should be located. There are those who will still tell you that it's little more than a commercial real estate venture supported by the public sector. I disagree.
At a time when quality of life has become such an important part of the economic development equation, successful cities tend to be the ones that have brought their downtowns back to life. In the words of developer Rett Tucker, who has devoted much of his career to reviving the capital city's downtown: "The future of Little Rock depends on a vibrant, healthy, robust downtown."
The Little Rock Technology Park, which is on the 400 block of Main Street, has provided entrepreneurs with a sense of place. It nurtures growth as they attempt to turn ideas into products, services and companies. Open work spaces, programming and mentoring promote creativity and collaboration. In addition to giving birth to businesses, this kind of atmosphere can help attract innovative companies from elsewhere.
If you want to see what a success story looks like, go a few blocks to the west to the Simmons Bank Tower and witness what Apptegy is doing.
In April 2015, Jeston George founded the education technology company in Little Rock and secured the venture capital necessary to launch his product. George wanted to attend school events in which his nephew was involved. He learned that most schools lacked a tool for sharing information with the families of students. So George invented a software product branded as Thrillshare. It allows teachers and administrators to enter stories, calendars and other media to a single platform. That platform, in turn, distributes the content to linked tools such as social media accounts, voicemail and websites.
Apptegy quickly grew from a startup company in a spare bedroom of George's house (with just seven school districts as customers) to one of the fastest-growing educational tech companies in the country.
Apptegy notes in its promotional literature that it "reaches families where they are--on desktops, iPhones, Androids, tablets and everywhere in between. ... In an increasingly competitive education landscape, it's more important than ever for schools to market their accomplishments."
Apptegy now has more than 100 employees downtown. We need more companies like it.
The first phase of the tech park provided almost 40,000 square feet of space. It has operated at more than 90 percent capacity since last summer. At times, that figure is 100 percent. Companies range from financial technology firms to those that specialize in health care, website design, information technology, data storage and telecommunications. A $5.6 million construction loan was retired in February.
Financial technology accelerators run by the Venture Center, which leases an entire floor, bring in participants from around the world. Several participants have relocated to Little Rock.
If funds can be raised, the second phase will cover about 85,000 square feet. There will be modular office space for established businesses and incubator space for startup and early-growth entities. There also will be wet and dry laboratory space to connect researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs. The facility will contain ample meeting space. In the process, it will take the revitalization of Main Street--what Little Rock government and civic leaders like to call the Creative Corridor--to the next level.
"We're running into instances where we're turning people away," Birch told a group of bankers last month. "I have a feeling there are also established companies in the Little Rock area who would like to be around this environment. They will be able to bring potential employees into an environment like this and say: 'This is the kind of place where you're going to work.'"
You can see why Birch has that sense of urgency. It's time to proceed with the second phase.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 08/07/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: A sense of urgency