Little Rock Tech Park leaders on Tuesday announced a $9.6 million project that will expand its operations into a neighboring six-story, 53,000-SF building at 421 Main St.
Renovations of Five Main Place, occupied until last summer by the state Department of Education, have already started, Tech Park Director Brent Birch said, and are expected to be complete by spring of 2024.
The project, led by WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock, CDI Contractors of Little Rock and Bernhard TME of Metairie, Louisiana, will demolish interior walls to create open floor plans for office space; install a 1,500-SF conference center with meeting rooms; add a podcast/video studio; put in a new HVAC system; update restrooms and break rooms; and improve the surrounding streetscape and building access.
John Burgess, chairman of the Technology Park Authority board, said high occupancy and a waiting list at times in the park’s Phase 1 facility prompted the board to begin planning an expansion. The new space will allow the park to take on more tenants or let existing tenants expand.
Tenants include technology startups and entrepreneurs who are in the early stages of their business, as well as programs like The Venture Center, an entrepreneurial support organization that provides resources to those companies.
"Our mission is to provide the place where entrepreneurs can vet their ideas and grow their young businesses in proximity with others following the same journey, by providing a supportive environment, featuring startup friendly amenities and programming through our partnership with The Venture Center," Burgess said at a news conference Tuesday in Phase 2’s future conference center, on the first floor of Five Main Place.
Phase 1 of the Tech Park, sponsored by the city, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, opened in February 2017. Little Rock voters approved a three-eighths cent capital sales tax in September 2011 that provided about $22 million for the park's development. The tax, which expired in 2021, allowed the park to borrow the money to buy properties in the 400 block of Main Street, renovating 415 and 417 Main Street to complete Phase 1.
Phase 2 is being funded with $1.7 million in leftover tax proceeds from Phase 1 and $3 million from the city of Little Rock’s general revenue budget. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said the city board voted for the appropriation at its March 7 meeting.
"It's not only about technology, it's about building a skilled workforce," Scott said. "It's also about building entrepreneurs in the tech area. And we want to continue to do that as we're going to continue to be a growing forward and a thriving city. And by doing that the city has to always step up and meet the challenge of the day."
Birch said the rest of the money will come from a combination of public and private sources that have yet to be determined. That could include a major tenant or a corporate sponsorship, he said.
The park has about 50 tenants now, 19 of which are classified as minority/women-owned business enterprises. Scott said promoting equity among tenants has been important to his administration. He cited two Tech Park companies with minority owners, including Bond.ai, which uses artificial intelligence to help banks understand consumer behavior; and Apptegy Inc., an early Tech Park tenant that announced plans in January to hire 300 people.
"So we're clearly leading in equity when it comes to the Tech Park, and we're going to continue to do it," he said.
Arkansas Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald said it was important that Little Rock continue to invest in the Tech Park.
McDonald, a former Entergy Arkansas Inc. CEO appointed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to lead the agency that includes the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, has said he wants to do more to boost Arkansas’ entrepreneurial ecosystem.
"Within the state of Arkansas, you're seeing the entrepreneur support networks, strengthen and grow," he said. "And that's something that the state can do more of in terms of supporting those networks. So really, really important for the city of Little Rock, central Arkansas to see this Phase 2 happen. And I know it's going to be a success."
Architect David Sargent, CEO and principal at WER Architects/Planners, told the board a year ago that it would cost about $8.5 million to renovate 421 Main, though he cautioned that the price could rise amid inflation. The board previously considered a $26 million plan to build a five-story addition but decided against it.
The building at 421 Main is among several properties — three buildings and nine parking lots — the Tech Park purchased in 2016 from Little Rock financier Warren Stephens for a combined $11.6 million. It was built in 1921 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.