Little Rock Tech Park tab at $13.2 million as downtown incubator project stays on schedule

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 214 views 

The Little Rock Tech Authority has expended $13.2 million to date on the crucial first phase of the downtown development to attract startups and tech-focused entrepreneurs to Central Arkansas, according to a monthly financial snapshot released Wednesday by the publicly-financed startup and small business incubator.

Most of the dollars, about $12.6 million, have gone to purchase three buildings that will serve as a central hub for the first phase of the downtown development that will include 40,000 square feet of startup, office and co-working space at 417 S. Main St.

In a presentation at the board’s monthly meeting at 107 E. Markham St., Tech Park Executive Director Brent Birch provided the directors with a slideshow presentation of the demolition that has begun on the former buildings owned by limited liability partnerships headed by billionaire Warren Stephens and Little Rock attorney Richard Mays.

Birch told the board that the demolition of those buildings are on schedule and construction will soon begin on the multi-phase, multimillion dollar project that is expected to begin leasing by the end of 2016. “They are blowing through things without any issues,” Birch said of East Harding Construction, which is leading the construction project.

In other Tech Park business, the board unanimously approved a recommendation from Birch to hire Jonesboro-based Ritter Communications to provide broadband service for tenants who will lease space at the downtown tech village.

Ritter was chosen from a request for proposal process that drew bids from AT&T, Windstream, Unite and Level# Communications. The bid from Ritter offered to provide broadband service at a cost of $1099.95 for one gigabyte of Internet speed on the low end up to 10 gigabytes for $7999.95 at the highest range, plus a $400 installation fee.

“I felt confident with the Ritter decision,” Birch told the board. “They are small and nimble and I believe they will be able to meet a lot of our needs.”

Former Tech Park Chair Mary Good, who presided over the monthly meeting in the absence of Kevin Zaffaroni, told Birch in his negotiations with Ritter to make sure that the Northeast Arkansas communications provider is able to meet the Tech Park’s future needs for broadband service.

“You can never get enough gigabytes,” said Good, former dean of UALR’s Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology.

Following quite a bit of informal discussion about the other bidders on the project, Birch reminded board members that tenants leasing space at the Tech Park can go out and find their own Internet provider to connect their broadband service.

“This is not an exclusive contract for the park,” he said. “If someone wants to bring in their own provider … it is open to all vendors for tenant use.”

In other business, Venture Center CEO Lee Watson gave a brief promotional presentation to the board on the upcoming FinTech Accelerator program first announced at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting in December by FIS Global President and CEO Gary Norcross.

The 12-week, intensive program is designed to accelerate the growth of early stage financial technology ventures. FIS will collaborate with The Venture Center to provide selected companies from the business, government and education sectors with a proven, comprehensive accelerator model that helps early stage companies become profitable.

The first phase of the program will admit up to 10 financial technology startups that will spur growth or tackle problems in the financial services sector. Watson said the Venture Center has received more than 150 applications from every continent, and has pared the list of finalists to 24 and then 14.

“We have extended offers to 10 who will be coming to Little Rock next week,” Watson said, adding that each will get an equity investment of $50,000.

The Venture Center also recently hired former Cardinal Health executive Gary Dowdy as managing director of the VC FinTech Accelerator program, and Navy veteran Brian Bauer as operations lead for the startup program, Watson said.

Since 2008, Dowdy has served as a management consultant and executive at four startup companies, one of which recently sold for $187 million. Bauer is a former operations manager for the Navy Seals.

Watson, along with Norcross, Dowdy, Little Rock Chamber CEO and Tech Park Board Director Jay Chesshir, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola are scheduled to make a “major announcement” during a 5 p.m. press conference on Monday, May 16.

Separately, at the end of Wednesday’s Tech Park meeting, the board unanimously approved a resolution to name the new conference center at the downtown tech village after Good, the longtime chair who resigned from her post in February.

The Mary Good Conference Center will be a key feature of the first phase of the development, according to architectural renderings. There is no timetable for the second phase of the downtown development, which will include state-of-the-art wet and dry labs and an additional 160,000 square feet of office space.

Plans for phases 3, 4 and 5 of the downtown project are expected to be mostly new construction that will include an 800-car parking deck, retail and restaurant space, and office accommodations for established tech companies.