In this episode of the Southern Fried Podcast, Rex sits down with Brent Birch, executive director of the Little Rock Technology Park, to discuss ways the Technology Park is fostering growth in Little Rock and Central Arkansas. The two old friends also chat about the upcoming duck season and what conservation steps to allow the sport to continue to thrive in Arkansas.
Rex Nelson: Hi, everybody and welcome to another edition of the Southern Fried podcast. I'm Rex Nelson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. And thank you for joining us yet again for this Democrat-Gazette production as we bring in some of the most interesting folks in Arkansas — see, I'm putting the pressure on you already. Brent, you got to be interesting this morning. Old friend Brent Birch, Little Rock Technology Park director, is my guest this morning. Thanks for joining us.
Brent Birch: Yeah, Rex, good to see you again. And thanks for having me on.
Rex Nelson: Yeah, absolutely. All right, we're gonna go on two levels, today. We're gonna spend about half the show on your vocation, which is the Technology Park and then we're going to spend about half the show on your avocation, which is duck hunting. Because we've got a season coming up, and you're one of the state's experts on that. Have written a book about the Grand Prairie, edit the Greenhead magazine, I could go on and on. So we'll start technology and then we'll transition into hunting if you're good with that.
Brent Birch: Perfect.
Rex Nelson: Good. Good. For those that might not be familiar. I am, I've written a lot about it through the years as you know, but those that might not be familiar, tell me a little bit about the tech park, its history, how it got to be here in Little Rock and where it is in Little Rock.
Brent Birch: Yeah, it's got a long story, as far as how it was kind of created, took a long time to get to actually being an entity that people can actually touch and feel so to speak. It came about mainly because of the generation of research and commercialization of research coming off of UAMS and UALR's campuses. And Little Rock was trying to capture that, those companies were being birthed out of the research side of things on those campuses and retain them versus them leaving to go to Dallas or St. Louis or Nashville or other area regional competitors that had research and lab space. Because once they commercialize they've got to move off of a campus and be a business and stand up on their own. So that was the original generation of this. It took a long time to get there finally through countless volunteer hours by the late Dickson Flake. And then of course, our current chamber president Jay Chesshir, were kind of the two that really drove that project to get to where it did and and got some legislation passed that created the, it was a Research Park Authority act that allowed you to stand up an entity like this. They also worked really hard to get the City of Little Rock behind it, UAMS and UALR sponsors and then Arkansas Children's Hospital was a kind of a quasi sponsor. So those entities helped really keep pushing it along and then finally got to a point where the board was formed. And then I came on board a few years even after the board was formed, they did spend a lot of time researching where it should be and that's what a lot of people remember about this project.
Rex Nelson: Right, a lot of stories generated in this newspaper about where that location should be.
Brent Birch: Yeah, and that caused some controversy early on when they were wanting to possibly bolt it on to the UALR campus or the UAMS campus especially on the UALR side. Because everybody knows that that campus is pretty much landlocked where it is. And so it would have caused some differences in what people thought should be done with the area around there. And that forced the board to step back and that's probably the best thing that ever happened. Because it allowed them to adjust the priorities of maybe where this should be and they looked at several properties all up and down 630 either side of it but settled on downtown and that was truly a blessing. Because that's, downtown is where it needs to be and should be.
Rex Nelson: Well our offices here at the Democrat-Gazette are of course just a block away from you. we're taping downtown. I work downtown, so I'm a fan of downtown. but you said it's where it should be. elaborate on that a little bit. Why should this be in downtown Little Rock?
Brent Birch: Yeah. Well, one downtown needs it, needs that vibrancy. you know, especially with the government exodus from downtown which is frankly it's it's it's hard to downtown market
Rex Nelson: It has. Especially as state government has moved more and more to the old alltel complex down in Riverdale.
Brent Birch: That's right. So the rest of what you've got downtown is banks and law firms and so the energy of the tech Park and the tenants that are within it changes the dynamic. and you can talk to Chris Tanner at Samantha's. That's a big reason he puts Samantha's where it is on the corner of third and main or fourth and main sorry, on the 300 block. He wanted to be close to the energy that the tech Park has created and you think about taking, you know, one of the buildings we own we still lease to the department of education, even though they won't be there that much longer. And then the two buildings we renovated one of them that was empty, had been empty since Stephens had moved to Center Street into the big skyscraper. We took a building down that had been vacant even prior to that that they were in which is the original Stephens headquarters and then renovated a building that Richard Mays owned that had, you know, had limited stuff done to it. so brought some truly some life back to the 400 block which like I said, I think has influenced what has happened in the 300 block with restaurants
Rex Nelson: I agree and again, as I said my office of course walking distance. but the 300 block that is a block you and I remember as recently as a decade ago, that was pretty desolate it now has six restaurants on that one block. three on one side and three on the other side.
Brent Birch: Yeah, it's pretty interesting. My first job out of college I went to work for the Worthen banking corporation, which was the holding company. at the time, you know Worthen was blowing and going, they had just bought union, if people remember that. that is right when I started. and so I worked in the building that Samantha's is in I worked on the seventh floor of that building
Rex Nelson: I'll be.
Brent Birch: They called it the WAC building, the Worthen Administration Center. And you know, there was nothing there. There was the News Mart was around the corner, you know, a couple other little things there. But it was pretty dark, dingy, block, and now it is a totally different scene. So yeah, I have memories back to the mid 90s of what that used to be and where it is now it's night and day.
Rex Nelson: Same here. I came to work in this building the first time in December of 1981. So go back and even before and watch that decline. And now the revitalization. And I have to agree with you. The tech Park has played a role in that. And I know you have been real pleased with your occupancy rates as you filled up before the pandemic. talk about how that occurred. And then how the pandemic has maybe affected you over the last year and a half
Brent Birch: The occupancy rate was completely full and had been for probably 10-11 months pre-pandemic. Now, people would leave but as soon as they would leave, there was a waiting list built in.
Rex Nelson: Somebody new would come in.
Brent Birch: Would come in. And we are limited in this space of the building that we're you know, the current phase one building to where we started looking at phase two even. But we, it definitely justified the project that there was a need in the Central Arkansas community for the technology focused companies, entrepreneurs, workers in that industry that needed a kind of a hub to operate out of. and so that that phase one building definitely justified that. then we started looking Okay, with this building full, we've got to start looking forward to phase two. And so we went through the whole process of even designing and getting costs back on a on a building that we were going to put in the parking lot between the phase one building and KATV's building. the old, the original Worthen Bank building
Rex Nelson: Right.
Brent Birch: Where the Center Theater used to be. So we went through that whole process, were geared up ready to go with that and start raising the funds to do that. And then the pandemic hit. And so we obviously put the brakes on that. But then we also suffered some vacancy, some Exodus by tenants naturally, that weren't either comfortable with coming to the office weren't able to afford the rent, because their business had slowed. But we also had a strong contingency of people that hung on to their space and didn't want to let it go. Because once this was over, they didn't, they didn't want to give up what they had.
Rex Nelson: Right.
Brent Birch: They didn't want to mess with changing even something as simple as mailing addresses during all this. So they hung on to their space. So we were still able to keep a core group as tenants. And there was a solid group that kept coming despite, you know, everything going on during the height of all this. And so that allowed us to keep operationally strong through this. And now we're on the other side of it, where we've almost filled the space back up again. And we've shifted gears on what we're going to do phase two, it's not a it's not a done deal. But you know, the odds are, we're going to go in and now that we've learned that the department of education is going to move out of the building here right across the street, on the corner of Capitol and Main. We'll go in and renovate that building. And that'll likely be our phase two.
Rex Nelson: So you will just move down the street down Main Street.
Brent Birch: Yeah, which is a natural progression for us to keep this continuous kind of campus built. But we'll do the space differently.
Rex Nelson: Yeah.
Brent Birch: Like I said, That's not a done deal. The board has not formally approved that. But that's the direction we're moving. We're working with the architect on figuring out how much that's going to cost and things like that. So they may not be a natural fit. We don't want to leave that building unoccupied. Because when the department of ed moves out, we want to be able to backfill them with with our tenant,
Rex Nelson: Realizing that there can be curveballs in life. And I'm using the analogy on purpose since you're an old baseball pitcher. But there could be curveballs, none of us saw the pandemic coming, of course. but putting that aside, give me kind of your best guess on where you see the technology park, maybe two years from now, five years from now, even 10 years from now.
Brent Birch: Yeah, and that's interesting, because as everybody knows, technology changes very rapidly. There's probably a technology bubbling up out there that we don't even know about yet. because we've seen some kind of come and go Since we opened that building in 2017, and the whole Bitcoin and all of those, those kind of cryptocurrencies. there was a couple of companies have come and gone in our space because of that. So there's something out there that we don't know about. But in two years, I would hope we've secured kind of an anchor tenant. just a little bit bigger tech company, or a satellite office of a large tech company that wants a little rock presence. I hope we've secured an anchor tenant to kind of build around that could almost serve as an upstream and maybe there in the tech Park and maybe there are cherry picking companies that are bubbling up in there to kind of absorbed them into their their world. because that's, that's really worked well with the FinTech accelerator. You've seen some of the large banks come in and kind of cherry pick technologies and absorb those back up into their underneath their banking umbrella. But as we all know, technology in banking is an everyday thing now. And I would hope that we're there. And then with the five year plan, I hope we've seen some, some exits, notable exits, by some companies, we've had some good ones, some good success stories. Apptegy
Rex Nelson: I was just thinking of that one, yeah.
Brent Birch: was an early one that he started in our space when we were on Markham, while the current phase one building was being renovated. And it was just him and then all of a sudden it was him in three or four people and then it was him in six or seven people. and in that space, we didn't have room to accommodate him, and the tech Park as it stands today wasn't available. So he had to move out. And within a year he had like 100 employees and now he's already moved again and is now kind of down where you know, that old Cajun's Wharf.
Rex Nelson: Right
Brent Birch: And he's got like over 200 employees.
Rex Nelson: Wow.
Brent Birch: So and that stuff a lot people don't hear about. but he's built this entire platform around communication and marketing within schools and sells his product across the country. and we've had a couple other good ones. Alleviant Health was another one that was in the telemedicine space that can justify them being in our building. They've exited now. I don't know how many square feet in where the old Kmart used to be where that gastroenterology clinic is. they've got a pretty good sized chunk of space in there.
Rex Nelson: On Rodney Parham, yeah.
Brent Birch: More than we could provide them in our current building. And there's been a couple more we've had some companies get sold. We had a company in there that was formerly Sumotext and then it was imimobile. They sold the to, to Cisco, which is a large technology providers. So there's been some really nice success stories. So we want to keep generating more of those. But what we like to see is one of those companies bubble up and get so big, similar to Apptegy they move out of here and the but they stay in Little Rock
Rex Nelson: They stay here. Yeah, makes sense. That makes sense. Well, good luck going forward. I think it's great for Little Rock. I think it's great for downtown. love having you around the corner and keep me in touch. I'll keep writing a lot in the future, because I'm really sold on what you're trying to do and think it's a real important part of where this city goes going forward. Alright, I'm gonna make that transition now. As you know, I contact you sometimes when I'm doing a duck hunting column, which we've got Bryan Hendricks, great outdoor editor here at the Democrat-Gazette. And he does the actual hunting stories and ammunition and guns and the nitty gritty and my columns are more culture and history. and duck hunting is just part of the cultural fabric of Arkansas, which is why I write about it a lot. It is part of our culture has its own unique culture, rich history. Talk a little bit first of all about your personal history how you grew up, and that being part of your winters growing up,
Brent Birch: I was lucky enough to tag along with my dad. He worked at the original Twin City Bank and they had a lodge that Frank Lyon's family owned. They owned Twin City Bank at the time, they owned a John Deere dealership, they owned the Coca Cola bottler. and they had a lodge which was Frank Lyon Jr's club prior to him buying Wingmead.
Rex Nelson: Wingmead, which is the most famous of the Arkansas clubs I'd have to say
Brent Birch: No question. But he when he bought Wingmead, he transitioned the the Crockett's Bluff lodge to a corporate club so the companies that he owned they they split the days and that's what I tell customers and so I got to tag along with my dad
Rex Nelson: On TCB days.
Brent Birch: That's right, yeah on TCB days I'd get to go down there and while he entertained clients and everything else, I got to run around with the guides and of course get to hunt. you know, every time we went down there and and it's a cool historic place too. It's on the national historic register. A really neat place hunting the, you know, the old oxbow lakes or the White River bottoms. That was my introduction to it. And obviously now 46 years later, I still light up with it.
Rex Nelson: Well, like I said, you write about it a lot. First of all, talk about greenhead magazine. Then I want to get into your Grand Prairie book a little bit, but talk about the magazine that you do every year.
Brent Birch: Yeah, that was, my previous job, before the tech park I was the chief information officer at Arkansas Business Publishing Group. and we kind of came up with the concept — there were a couple of other duck hunters in the company at the time — that nobody was really writing about Arkansas duck hunting. Just Arkansas, not trying to be anything to everybody. really focused, narrowly focused on Arkansas. and given we're the duck capital of the world, we felt there would be a justification for national advertising in there enough local advertising and then obviously plenty of editorial content to write about. so we launched it and you know, now it's 11 years later its annual magazine that comes out 11 years later we're still doing it
Rex Nelson: And even though you left that job you kept doing magazine.
Brent Birch: That's right, I'm still editor. pretty much have my hands in all — except the sales side I don't know I'll refer them companies that I run across or people I run across that would be interested but I don't handle any of the sales piece — but the editorial side of things kind of direct all that kind of come up with the concepts of the stories. and I usually write two or three a year. mostly either written about conservation, or things going on in that world or some of the historical pieces. Those are the two I like to write about the most
Rex Nelson: Now I mentioned that I was going to talk about the book. As you know, because I've written about it a lot, my mother's from Des Arc on the Grand Prairie. I used to spend large parts of my summers at my grandparents house and Des Ark and the holidays. I have a real place in my family roots in my heart for it. you did a book on that region of the state and again, it wasn't just hunting. I mean that cutting was kind of the theme but you expanded that into the whole culture, history of the region, famous restaurants, on and on. talk a little bit about that and why you kind of expanded it into more than just a "here's where you go duck hunting" book.
Brent Birch: Yeah, that was an awesome project. just to be able to, I mean I've hunted on the Grand Prairie my entire life and learned so many things about people, places, things that I didn't didn't know about. and my hope is everybody that read the book did the same. Because, there's truly not another place on the planet that has the rich cultural history that the Grand Prairie has. and it got to be a point it was with Stephens Jr who came to me about writing the book. We had a mutual interest in the heritage and history of things and he called me to his office one day and he wanted to have lunch. and, you know, I didn't know at the time other than we were talking about duck hunting. and he brought it up: we need to do a book about this place — about the history and the culture in the traditions of this area — before some of these people start fading away. Plenty already have. and the timing was right to pull that off because I still, through the magazine and through my personal experiences, I had a lot of connections on the prairie.
Rex Nelson: Right.
Brent Birch: Well now after writing the book I have even more. but you know you talk to one person who's "you want to talk to so and so." and that network, you know, Arkansas — I've said a few times, I've heard other people say it, too — you know, it's a two phone call state. I may not have the governor's number but I can call you and you can probably get me the governor.
Rex Nelson: That's right, you can get to somebody in two calls, yeah.
Brent Birch: So the prairie definitely works that way. And so the access to be able to write about places that haven't been in any of these other books, and to talk about people that haven't been in any of these other books. because a lot of the previous books — now, the duck hunter's Almanac was unbelievable. but it was the whole state and that covered everything. but it was still mainly duck hunting. Geared towards duck hunting.
Rex Nelson: Right, right.
Brent Birch: And then there's been a couple books come out of Memphis that are more about the clubs and I wanted to write about all the other cool stuff I know that goes on in that part of the world places to eat...
Rex Nelson: Making calls. You know, on and on. Yeah, yeah.
Brent Birch: All those pieces that truly identify the Grand Prairie as the epicenter of duck hunting. the timing, the reason I said the timing was right, I think part of it because of social media and some of the things that that is generated, I think we've gotten away from some of the traditions in respect of the long haul of the sport of waterfowling versus you know, how fast can we kill them? How fast can I get my picture with all my buddies up on social media? not really necessarily respecting what came before that's made the sport have the longevity it has despite trying to hunt a wild animal that lives somewhere else most of the year. you know, has babies somewhere else long ways away. spends its winter down here. It's not something that's around all the time like deer or you know some other animals that are hunted and harvested in Arkansas. so it's a — part of it is a hope that maybe some younger generation reads that book and understands you know, this thing doesn't necessarily last forever. there's been some dips in duck season and we might be facing another one coming up.
Rex Nelson: Right.
Brent Birch: We've come off a couple, couple tough seasons and things don't sound great. We're probably kind of a little bit spoiled.
Rex Nelson: We are spoiled.
Brent Birch: Nobody's gonna feel sorry for us on our Mallard harvests if you talk to anybody in other state.
Rex Nelson: We're going to be the top mallard state even if we think it's an awful year
Brent Birch: That's right.
Rex Nelson: You know you have written about it, and I enjoy how you have covered it in Greenhead and elsewhere: You know duck hunters are no different than anybody else. you get into conspiracy theories and you try to come with one thing — they're they're planting corn up in Missouri and Iowa and leaving the fields and flooding them, and that's holding all the ducks and yada yada yada. and in you have written extensively about just how complex this is and how hard it is to make those estimates on what kind of year it's going to be. there's no single one factor, is there? there's a whole bunch of factors that play into what kind of season you're gonna have
Brent Birch: Yeah, no. There is no question. and people want to simplify it down to these things.
Rex Nelson: They do
Brent Birch: You know, it's the weather doesn't get cold enough anymore. or it's you know, they're planting corn and leaving corn and there are heated ponds and things north of us and ducks never get here. Those are factors. but not the single driving factors. not even weather is the single driving factor. It's got so much more to do than that. and then I wrote what I felt turned out to be a really good piece in this current Greenhead about some of the factors that are driving it. and you add them all up and then yeah, if all those things happen that's why the seasons aren't very good. That's why we're not seeing the number of ducks .You know, one of those factors comes to play. This year, supposedly the breeding is poor. Dry. Super dry in Canada, super dry in the Dakotas. But if we get the right weather that pushes the ducks that's gonna make them here. Now whether we're gonna see him during daylight, that's another question. because we as hunters are putting a lot of pressure on the modern day mallard and that's driving them to be nocturnal. everybody's seen it. you know 30 minutes after shooting time the sky's full of ducks. but that's because the ducks have gotten smart. because the hunter has pressured the duck, you know, pushing it about as hard as we can push it. and that's something we can actually control. we can't control corn planting up north, definitely can't control the weather. Now you can control easing off on the duck. and this new trend in scouting. people ride in the woods all day in boats kicking ducks up, that's not good for the sport. It's not good for the longevity of keeping ducks in the area. You know, shooting these, I've seen these specklebelly goose hunts they're taking 20 and 30 guns in there. That's not good for the longevity that's a short, short narrow thinking about where we're going to be a couple years. so things like that hunters — big thing for me is control what you can control. you can control whether you shoot a drake or a hen. This year we probably need to be shooting drakes.
Rex Nelson: I agree.
Brent Birch: Hens have had a tough, tough time on the prairie. because when it's dry predators have easier access to them. So if we want to see some rebound in population maybe we should let the mamas make it back to Canada and we get the right conditions up there. A drought, you know, not a drought but a really wet spring, we put enough mamas back on the prairie, that prairie, maybe we will see an explosion in population again. but if we just blindly go try to fill a limit and we we shoot hens, drakes, doesn't matter. You're taking those out of the equation. We might be looking at some some flatlining or some some downturns population wise.
Rex Nelson: Good point. One other issue I want to hit with you because it's been in the news a lot lately. Of course, one of the things that made Arkansas the duck-hunting capital of the world were our great public hunting lands that allowed people to come here from all over the country and literally around the world and hunt. And of those lands, it was really the green timber area that was flooded that made those most famous places like Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have really started at least in the last year taking a lot of legislators out taking a lot of people out. and have made very clear that we've got real problems with our hardwoods in those areas dying off. that the water staying on them too long. And it's not going to be cheap to remedy that and they're going to have to find new sources of income to do that. Talk a little bit about that situation.
Brent Birch: I was fortunate enough to go on two tours of Bayou Meto, one this spring and one in the early summer. and I have had extensive conversations with several commissioners that I know personally that I consider friends and then I've had lunch with Austin Booth our new Game and Fish director, and I've had lots of conversations with him about it. The damage is real. This isn't the game of fish trying to, a lot of people have the opinion that they're favoring private land hunters, now. that's not the case. I've seen it with my own eyes, those woods are in trouble. Hurricane is really in trouble.
Rex Nelson: Yeah, they're stressed aren't they?
Brent Birch: In bad shape. but you know we were going in there — I can't remember the exact timing — but the amount of water that was still being held in Bayou Meto in the early summer was really disturbing and they can't get it off.
Rex Nelson: Right, and those oaks should be on dry land by that point of the year.
Brent Birch: That's right. now they've got a, I'm fully convinced they have a great plan in place and that's gonna, some hunting is going to suffer because of it. And I'm interested, I mean me personally, I'm interested. I along with some partners on a farm just north of upper Vallier, just north of Halowell. Well that part is that's going to be part that's going to be probably dry most of the season unless we get some kind of huge rain based on this new flooding schedule that they're going to use. And how's that going to impact the ducks? I mean, are we still going to get ducks were those ducks on go that we're going to upper Vallier into Hallowell? Where are they going to go now? it's going to be interesting. but it's a make or break deal, a decision, a hard decision they had to make to do that, and some hunters are going to be impacted. but there was not going to be any hunting, if they didn't make a change.
Rex Nelson: Right.
Brent Birch: Now, they still have got to find money to redo some of the water control structures to make it act more natural. They didn't know what they didn't know back when they did them. And now, just like everything else, we figured out better ways to do things and get smarter about things as time goes by. And they did some things wrong. and they'll, the Game and Fish is the first to admit it. But now they've got a plan in place that's going to remedy a lot of that and they had to make that decision now even for Bayou Meto to have a chance. Hurricane is probably past having a chance. It's gonna have to be a rebuild deal and they've identified some ways to do that. But Bayou Meto has still got a chance to hang in there and be okay. but if those changes weren't made, and those decisions, those tough, tough decisions, weren't made, we're looking at Bayou Meto not being anything remotely close to what we all knew, have known for all this time.
Rex Nelson: Yeah. And again, talk about a part of our Arkansas culture. So bottom line for hunters, especially those who hunt public lands, there's gonna have to be short term sacrifice — short term being over several seasons probably — in order to ensure long term survival.
Brent Birch: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And that's the way they gotta look at it. and I get it. you know, not being a public land hunter I can definitely feel for the situation. but you can't take what you're gonna miss out on this season for something if we didn't make the change you miss you miss out on forever, and your children and grandchildren may miss out forever. because those things aren't easy to get back. You can't grow, you can't go plant 100 foot tall red oaks. they don't exist. And so to see the damage that we saw this summer going in there, you think about that, if the if all this went untouched and it just continued to go the route I was going, I mean, you're gonna be you'd be looking at a big dead stick reservoir.
Rex Nelson: Yeah.
Brent Birch: I don't think anybody wants that.
Rex Nelson: No, not at all. Well, we're only about a month away. So we're close enough. I can say you have a good season. Brent, thank you for joining us today.
Brent Birch: I appreciate you having me.
Rex Nelson: I really enjoyed the discussion, interesting combination. We do technology and cutting today. I enjoyed that. We'll have you back some time. If you don't mind.
Brent Birch: Yeah, We can always throw, next time we can throw Razorback baseball in there.
Rex Nelson: Absolutely. Maybe get you back in the spring, that's a good idea. That's a good idea. Thank you for joining us for another edition of the Southern Fried podcast. I'm Rex Nelson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. We'll see you next time.