Icon (Close Menu)


Tech Park Moving From Concept to Physical Reality

6 min read

The planned Little Rock Technology Park has existed mostly in theory since voters passed a half-cent sales tax back in 2011 to provide $22 million for its development.

Having recently cleared its last property acquisition hurdle for phase one of the $100 million project, the Little Rock Technology Park Authority board now has full architect renderings in hand. Phase one will entail 86,000 SF encompassing 415-421 Main St., and it’s expected to be complete by late 2016 or early 2017. Work is expected to begin early next year.

Wittenberg Delony & Davidson of Little Rock is the architect and is working with Gaudreau Inc. of Baltimore; East Harding of Little Rock is the contractor. The 38,000 SF that makes up 415 and 417 Main will anchor the project and house technology-focused companies, startups and entrepreneurs in a combination of co-working, semi-private and private offices.

The Arkansas Department of Higher Education occupies 48,000 SF at 421 Main and will continue to lease the space, providing the park with operating cash flow. The lease is $755,448.40 per year with an additional $3,995 per month for 85 parking spaces on Main.

Tech Park Director Brent Birch calls that a huge factor in the park’s launch. The total project, for which there is no definitive timetable, entails more than 600,000 SF spread over five phases.

For now, the Tech Park board is focused squarely on getting phase one off the ground, almost five years after Little Rock voters approved a tax increase to fund development through 2021. And it’s been eight years since enabling legislation was passed in the Arkansas General Assembly creating the board authority (see sidebar). The idea for a tech park was first floated by city leaders in 2005.

In January, the board will close on almost $13 million worth of property that includes $11.6 million in real estate along the Main Street corridor that’s owned by Warren Stephens.

But getting to the point of site prep on phase one has been a journey fraught with delays, including site selection and property acquisition. The final phase one hurdle was cleared last month when the board and Little Rock lawyer Richard Mays agreed on a price for his property at 415 Main.

After months of negotiation, the threat of an eminent domain lawsuit by the board and an actual suit from Mays challenging the board’s authority to claim eminent domain, the parties settled on a price of $1.037 million, roughly halfway between Mays’ demand of $1.2 million and the board’s previous agreement to pay an appraised price of $845,000.

(As of press time, Mays was still looking over the contract but was expected to sign this week.)

The legal dance with Mays cost the Tech Park board roughly $11,000, and board attorneys at Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard said it would’ve cost the board upwards of $100,000 had the issue gone to court.

Progress Ahead

With the Mays hurdle behind them, board members are breathing a sigh of relief. Ahead of them appears only progress. Chad Young of WD&D shared new renderings of the finished phase one product with the board last week. Board members and architects have toured similar facilities across the country and intend to include best features and practices in the Little Rock Tech Park.

Board member Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, believes the city can develop the type of mixed-use corridor along Main Street to attract the kind of young professionals needed to populate the park.

One missing component to the emerging tech startup ecosystem is much-needed wet lab/bio space for biotech companies, Chesshir said. Nancy Gray, director of the BioVentures tech startup incubator at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, requested that it be prioritized in the Tech Park plans, he noted. UAMS is one of three Tech Park sponsors with the city of Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. As of now, wet lab space has been moved up to phase two from phase three.

“We’ll look at trying to prioritize a wet lab/bio building if we can create the funding to do that,” he said. “With BioVentures full, access for that type of space has not been there, and companies have been forced to look and move elsewhere.”

Chesshir noted as well that the park could end up leasing space to UAMS.

City leaders believe attracting the kind of established tech companies that would require wet lab space, in addition to the startups, is crucial to rejuvenating downtown.

A 2014 report from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, called the rise of “innovation districts” a clear path forward for cities and metropolitan areas. It cited successful efforts in many American cities to repopulate and restore urban cores.

Birch expects the Tech Park to fill up but warned that it probably won’t open at capacity. The co-working space the park leases to tech startups from its temporary quarters at 107 E. Markham has been consistently full, and that’s a good sign, he said.

“The expectation that we will open the doors 100 percent occupied in phase one is not very realistic and shouldn’t be a measuring stick for the project’s success,” he said. “We are going to be aggressive in marketing the space to prospective tenants to get phase one off the ground in good shape and filling 40,000 square feet isn’t overly daunting given the interest generated thus far.”

The process that’s delivered the Tech Park from concept to tangible entity has been slow, but Birch said that’s to be expected.

“Public economic development projects take time,” he said. “The processes involved with conceptualizing, planning and executing this plan require the authority board and myself to be extremely diligent to ensure we are making sound decisions in the best interest of the citizens of Little Rock and our sponsors. Right now is an exciting time in the project as true progress is being made. The opportunity to avoid litigation and further expense and delays is critical to sustain the positive momentum built up over the past year or so.”

Similar projects are up and running and successfully driving economic development in cities across the region: Atlanta, Memphis, St. Louis, Nashville, New Orleans, even Chattanooga, Tennessee. Birch and city leaders believe Little Rock couldn’t have waited any longer to do something like the Tech Park.

“We have to start somewhere and sometime, and there is no question the time is now before Little Rock falls farther behind comparable, regional competitors for tech companies and talent,” he said. “The central Arkansas region has made great strides in the last couple of years with more and more entrepreneurs and tech companies believing they can make it happen in Little Rock. This facility will only foster that belief and give the tech community a sense of place.”

The Board

The Little Rock Technology Park Board Authority is a seven-person entity appointed by the Tech Park project sponsors: the city of Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Its members:

  • Mary Good, chair, founding dean of the George Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology at UALR, former National Science Board member and undersecretary for technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce during President Bill Clinton’s first term;
  • Kevin Zaffaroni, vice chair, senior vice president for IT outsourcing at Acxiom Corp. of Little Rock;
  • Dickson Flake, treasurer, longtime Little Rock developer and broker with the Little Rock office of Colliers International;
  • Jay Chesshir, secretary, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce;
  • Tom Butler, vice chancellor for administration at UAMS;
  • C.J. Duvall, vice president of institutional advancement at Philander Smith College and chief adviser of the Duvall Family Charitable Endowment; and
  • Darrin Williams, CEO of Southern Bancorp Inc. of Arkadelphia, former partner in the Little Rock law firm of Carney Williams Bates Pulliam & Bowman and former member of the Arkansas House of Representatives.
Send this to a friend