Regional Power Grid Manager Plans $62.5M Office Project In WLR

by George Waldon  on Monday, Mar. 1, 2010 12:00 am  

Details are coming together that should launch construction of a $62.5 million office development in west Little Rock by mid-year.

Southwest Power Pool Inc., which oversees an electricity power grid in eight states, has plans for a 150,000-SF office building and a 33,000-SF operations center. The project would allow the not-for-profit corporation to consolidate its Little Rock operations and house an expanded staff envisioned to include 150 new workers during the next three years.

"It will be the biggest deal around here in a very long time," said Jim Hathaway, a veteran Little Rock commercial developer.

Southwest Power Pool currently employs about 450 scattered around three locations in Pulaski County. The new facility will allow a consolidation of two Little Rock offices, but the company's 20,000-SF operations center at 1300 Murphy Drive in Maumelle will remain in use as a backup facility.

"Over the years, we've shoehorned people wherever we could," said Nicholas Brown, president and CEO of Southwest Power Pool. "It's time to look at our longer-term needs and plan for the future."

The corporate headquarters occupies about 60,000 SF in the Plaza West Building at 415 N. McKinley St. in midtown Little Rock, and additional staffers work out of nearly 30,000 SF in the GMAC Center at 16101 La Grande Drive in west Little Rock.

"It will bring us all together on one campus," said Emily Pennel, communications manager at Southwest Power Pool. "We looked at existing buildings and properties all around Little Rock. We have not signed a contract yet. We're still in negotiations."

Southwest Power Pool looked at more than 30 properties since the corporate campus plan took life 18 months ago, and the final details of an acquisition should be hammered out in the next few weeks.

The most publicized site considered was an 18-acre tract at the northeast corner of Rahling Road and Chenal Drive owned by the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System.

However, a 20-acre site south of the Kroger Marketplace under construction at 16105 Chenal Parkway is labeled by some as the leading candidate. The property is part of an 80-acre tract that Whisenhunt Investment Group LLC hopes to develop into an office park.

"They're committed to the deal," Joe Whisenhunt Jr. said of Southwest Power Pool. "It's just a matter of getting through all the legalities."

Among the remaining chores are taking care of zoning and land-use issues with Little Rock officials and eventually getting the property annexed into the city.

The project would serve as an anchor user on the south end of a block of land Whisenhunt Investment controls between Pride Valley Road and Chenal Parkway.

Plans call for construction of a $1 million bridge to span Rock Creek and connect a southern extension of Kirk Road with Pride Valley Road. The bridge is part of a $4.5 million infrastructure budget to develop 61 acres. The Rock Creek floodplain accounts for the remaining 19 acres.

A development team is waiting in the wings once the final paperwork is squared away for land acquisition. Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway will be the general contractor on the project, and the Little Rock architecture firm of Witsell Evans & Rasco will oversee design work.

The project is expected to be a green development with LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification, and construction could be in full swing by June once the site purchase is completed.

"We're hoping to move on that quickly, so we can get on down the road," Brown said. "Then we can focus on providing our members services."

Keeping the Lights On

Southwest Power Pool likens itself to an air traffic controller for more than 56 power companies and related entities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

Instead of coordinating aircraft landings and takeoffs, the company oversees the ebb and flow of electricity across a regional power grid with 50,575 miles of transmission lines.

Its membership includes cooperatives, independent power producers, independent transmission companies, investor-owned corporations, marketers, municipals and state agencies.

Southwest Power Pool also serves as an independent transmission coordinator for Entergy's network in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

"Our whole goal is to improve their operating efficiencies," Brown said.

The company is a regional electricity transmission organization mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale prices of electricity.

As utilities have become more interconnected under deregulation, the desire has grown to centralize functions that previously the companies performed individually.

As Southwest Power Pool began taking on more of those duties, its staff has grown accordingly. In 1997, employment increased from 30 to 116 as the company took on security coordination chores.

In 1998, tariff administration boosted its work force to more than 200. Regional scheduling in 2001, oversight of a multistate transmission grid in 2004 and contract services in 2006 also added jobs.

About 18 months ago, Southwest Power Pool began working internally with its finance committee to study options to meet the company's growing needs for operational space.

"This is the time to start evaluating options for owned property versus leased property," Brown said. "Now that we know we're going to be a large-staffed organization, it's time to look at developing our own campus."

Roots in WWII

The legacy of Southwest Power Pool dates back to Dec. 14, 1941, as America geared for World War II.

The organization was formed to pool regional electricity to expand bauxite production in Arkansas to help feed the wartime demand for aluminum.

The Jones Mill plant alone needed 120,000 kilowatts to operate around the clock when the state's entire generation capability totaled 100,000 kilowatts.

Southwest Power Pool provided the logistical link for 11 power companies to supply the needed juice for the Jones Mill plant and the state during the war. The arrangement worked so well that it lived on, helping coordinate regional peacetime energy services.

Southwest Power Pool existed as a handshake organization for more than 50 years until it became a legal corporate entity in 1994.



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