by Luke Jones
Posted 11/11/2013 12:00 am
Updated 4 months ago
“If you build it, he will come” was Ray Kinsella’s mantra in the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.” It also seems to be the attitude of the Little Rock Technology Park Authority in completing its long-awaited research and technology park project.
The project is intended to provide a space for researchers from local universities to turn their research into business. For the past two years, the authority’s board of directors has been fighting an increasingly bumpy battle over the location of the park.
Many of the potential locations near Little Rock’s universities would have involved bulldozing parts of residential areas, sparking anger in those neighborhoods. After many months of debate, the seven-member board finally voted four-three to locate the park, now more of a “technology corridor,” in downtown Little Rock.
Though that challenge is out of the way, the authority still has very little in the way of tenants who have agreed to set up shop.
“It’s hard,” said Jay Chesshir, CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and spokesman for and member of the authority’s board. “You have to have a place to invite them to come be a part of. … Again, without the place it’s difficult to even ask someone to be interested.”
Perhaps it’s time to back out and ask the question: What is the technology park supposed to actually accomplish?
The park’s most direct inspiration is the Arkansas Research & Technology Park on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. It essentially started in 1986 with the Genesis Technology Incubator facility. A strategic plan for growth into a full-fledged research park was created in 2002, and the UA Technology Development Foundation was created in 2003. The same year, the foundation broke ground on a new innovation center, and it was dedicated in 2004. Other parts of the park were created between then and 2010.
It’s helped incubate businesses like Space Photonics Inc. and Silicon Solar Solutions and currently hosts about 35 businesses. “We’re still functioning under that same strategic plan,” said Phillip Stafford, president of the park.
Besides the Fayetteville park, Chesshir said major inspiration comes from two other similar projects around the country: Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis and the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Those entities host businesses across the incubation spectrum, starting from mere ideas to fully realized companies. Essentially, they move businesses through three stages: ideation, realization and commercialization. That’s what would be going on at the Little Rock technology corridor.
“In a simple form, it’s really three different levels of companies,” Chesshir said. “That’s the spectrum: from the very beginning stages to commercially profitable in the marketplace, and all things in between.”
But beyond that idea, the tech corridor doesn’t have much else to show for itself.
In 2011, Little Rock taxpayers agreed to funnel $22 million from sales tax proceeds toward the park. According to Scott Massanelli, Little Rock’s treasury manager, $3.2 million has so far been collected for the tech park fund, none of which has yet been spent.
But that money is only for initial infrastructure, after which more will need to be raised. Mary Good, chair of the park authority’s board, has stated that no private investment will be sought until the location is nailed down.
A local entrepreneur, Rod Ford, has expressed interest in locating his company, nGage, in the park. There’s also BioVentures, the University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s life science incubator.
BioVentures inspired the original development of the park in 2005, Chesshir said, when the Little Rock Chamber started discussing how that research could be commercialized. And UAMS is now running out of lab space for the research.
“They’ve been full and have had to turn away companies,” Chesshir said. “So we look at that as one of the anchors of the first facility, incorporating what they’re doing and what [the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s] nanotechnology center is doing and how we can utilize those resources as anchors in our first building.”
BioVentures’ space in the park would include services like accounting, legal services, administration and access to a regular office setup.
“That becomes part of the shared equipment opportunity that these individual small companies on their own couldn’t afford,” Chesshir said.
So if the only certain part of the authority’s plan is a location, how can anyone be certain that it’s even a good fit for Little Rock?
Stafford at the UA said the approach of having buildings first, then businesses, was a bit concerning. “I think you need to be a little more proactive, and need to have more of a strategic approach of how you foster, grow and sustain in a research environment,” he said. “There’s a value proposition question in there.”
But Stafford also said he’s optimistic. “I’ve spent some time with the board of directors,” he said. “I’m bullish on knowledge-based and tech-based economic development. You know, these things, in my opinion, it’s all about the value-add. And tying the technology-based economic development to the intellectual assets of a major research university is a very good idea.”
Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, said the downtown location would bring value to that area.
“What we would be proposing to them are several locations that include Main Street,” she said. “There are several buildings along Main Street that could be renovated using tax credits. We think what they’re doing brings opportunities for private developers, as well, to take advantage of those tax credits.”
Tom Dalton, head of Innovate Arkansas, has been dealing with the Little Rock chamber in searching for locations but is otherwise unattached to the project. He said there is a need for a technology-focused incubation space in central Arkansas. His group, which mentors tech-heavy startups, has received about $190 million in investment revenue since it started, which he said indicates growth in that field.
“Innovate Arkansas, since its conception in 2008 … has probably had 380 to 390 startup applications in which probably somewhere in the area of 70 to 90 companies were actually signed onto the Innovate Arkansas process,” he said. “So that is an indication that we’re starting to grow. These companies, in the state, are heavily concentrated in two areas: central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas.”
Chesshir’s opinion aligns with Dalton’s.
“In many cases today, research and technology that’s moving to commercialization oftentimes has to go somewhere else for access to needed infrastructure,” Chesshir said. “If we don’t take advantage of what’s already taking place, and nurture and grow what’s already taking place, then all we are doing is providing wonderful new technologies and products and IT that others will capitalize, commercialize and create jobs out of. I think that’s it in a nutshell.”
Chesshir pointed to the success of the Ark Challenge, a business accelerator program, which attracted entrepreneurs from all over the world.
The authority’s board, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday, is next going to bring in real estate professionals, architects, engineers and consultants with experience in downtown areas, Chesshir said.
One thing’s for sure, he said: The corridor won’t look like the 30-acre idea that was originally recommended in Angle Technology Group’s 2009 study for the project. Downtown Little Rock just isn’t laid out in a way for that to be possible.
“There is a host of things that will now have to be researched, from an engineering perspective — what is and is not possible — and begin the process of identifying what the first building will need to have and design around those needs like determining square feet, wet lab space, shared service space, conference rooms, offices and the ability to expand,” Chesshir said.
And, ultimately, how close is this project to completion?
Chesshir said success for the park means “recognizing the end may not be until 20 years from now,” he said. “When you look at other research and tech parks, they’re long-term investments, long-term build-outs with long-term benefits. The people of Little Rock felt it was time to get started, and we are now getting started. Imagination is the only thing that can be used to determine what this will look like 20 years from now.”