Tech Park board drafts plan for second phase for downtown project, Mainstream Technologies exec named chairman

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 286 views 

The Little Rock Technology Park Authority on Wednesday (Nov. 8) adopted a draft plan for the second phase of the urban tech village that board members hope will serve as a key public space in the renaissance of the Main Street area of the city’s downtown corridor.

Last month, the seven-member Tech Park board of directors announced the completion of Phase I of the taxpayer-financed downtown development that came in $2.5 million under budget nearly six months after the grand-opening of the startup incubator.

Tech Park Executive Director Brent Birch apprised board members at the monthly meeting he had received bids from six architectural firms in response to a recent request for proposal (RFP) to design the second step of the development. One of the proposals came from Little Rock’s Wittenberg Delony & Davidson Architects, which was awarded the design contract for Phase I of the project.

“None of these firms are new from the perspective of following the project,” Birch said, adding that each company submitted proposals in the first phase of the development. “With only six of them being involved, I plan to meet with each one of them and talk through Phase II and what we envision at this time and then give them some perspective on all that and allow them to ask questions …”

According to last month’s financial report by Tech Park board director Dickson Flake, capital costs for the completed first phase of the development ended at $21.3 million, 9.4% below the forecasted budget of $23.5 million. The biggest portion of the budget was $12.6 million in property acquisition costs and $6.8 million for construction.

The downtown development was accelerated in 2011 after Little Rock taxpayers approved a $22.5 million sales tax referendum to finance the project. In March, Tech Park officials held the grand opening for the multi-tenant, 38,000-square-foot facility located at the center of the downtown district in the 400 block of Main Street.

Although no plans or financing have been finalized, the next phase of the multi-stage technology and research park will be constructed on the parking lot between the new Tech Park headquarters and the KATV building, located at the corner of Main and Fourth streets. Although the original plan called for five phases, a newly-revised master plan calls for six stages of development.

Birch said the board now needs to decide on a design that will be a mix of office space and a state-of-the-art wet/dry laboratory facility for computing and science research. Flake said he hopes the board will be able to boost the image of the Tech Park by engaging the public to help with design and planning.

“I really think on this one, we should raise the profile in the selection process … and let the public know we are starting Phase II planning,” said Flake, a longtime Little Rock real estate developer and Arkansas Business Hall of Fame member.

Board Director Kevin Zaffaroni, who stepped down at Wednesday’s meeting as chair of the nonprofit authority supported by the city, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), urged Birch to whittle the list of architect firms down to three or four finalists and then bring that list to the board before the end of the year.

“Properly constructed, I believe it could be very, very attractive to an awful lot of businesses in the (downtown) area,” Zaffaroni said. “Everyone knew this phase was going to occur, but the next phase I think is really going to define us. I think it’s going to be great for Little Rock and … I think it can be a main entrance to Main Street and bring the restaurant side and the arts side of downtown together.”

Once an architect is selected, Birch said he would immediately push out another RFP to hire a construction manager to lead the project and finalize total costs for the next phase. Once a budget is in place, Birch said the board can decide how to pay for construction.

According to the Tech Park’s financial report, the city sales tax allocation of $22.5 million from the 2011 voter referendum is now estimated to be only $20.7 million due to lower-than-projected retail sales in Little Rock and prior disbursements for public safety and public works projects that receive priority from the city. To date, the Tech Park has received $8 million in funds from city sales tax collections, with an additional $12.7 million to be disbursed on an escalating scale through 2021. Birch told board members that city officials have said the authority’s 2017 disbursement from the city sales tax would amount to $1.68 million.

Construction for the first phase was also partly funded by a $17.1 million loan after the Tech Park board unanimously passed a resolution in April 2016 to formally authorize project financing from a local bank consortium. Flake said the Tech Park still owes $15.4 million to the bank consortium headed by Centennial Bank that was split into a taxable loan of $5.8 million at an interest rate of 4.19% due before February 2019, and a larger $9.6 million tax-exempt portion due February 2022 at an interest rate of 2.95%.

In other business, the seven-member Tech Park board accepted Zaffaroni’s resignation as chairman, who opted to remain on the board after a tenure of nearly 20 months. The former Acxiom executive said it was his personal philosophy that other board members should serve as chair as the Tech Park grows and reaches new benchmarks.

Zaffaroni in 2016 replaced the longtime and sometimes controversial Tech Park Chair Mary Good, the former dean of UALR’s College of Engineering and Information Technology. Board Director John Burgess, another UALR appointee and president and co-founder of Mainstream Technologies, was unanimously approved as the authority’s new chairman.

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