Little Rock Technology Park Authority directors heard pitches on Wednesday (Dec. 13) from three different architectural firms that are competing to design and plan Phase Two of the city’s multi-stage downtown startup village that does not yet have financing or a price tag.
In a meeting that lasted well over two hours, the seven-person Tech Park board of directors intently watched and listened to three 30-minute presentations from executives representing Little Rock-based firms Polk Stanley Wilcox, WER Architects/Planners, and Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson, the same group that the led design and planning of the $30 million-plus Phase One development.
Before each presentation, newly appointed Tech Park Chairman John Burgess told each firm that the board would not choose a winner until they had a chance to meet and review each presentation.
“(We) do not plan to select a firm tomorrow, we can research and review each presentation and make a decision by December 21st,” said Burgess, president of Mainstream Technologies.
After each presentation, several board members peppered the local architects with numerous questions about their pitches, asking them about some of the major challenges about the project and seeking some insight on possible ways to finance the project and what the next phase of the development may end up looking like.
Burgess then quizzed the remaining board members on the process of ranking the firms and moving forward with selecting a winner a few days before Christmas. Board members spent another 25 minutes in discussion about how to score the presentations before deciding to hold another conference call early next week and then publicly announcing the winner at a specially-called meeting.
Tech Park director C.J. Duvall, a former Alltel Corp. executive, told other board members that the process to select a winner will be very difficult based on Wednesday night’s presentations.
“It is likely that they are all equal, depending on what resource they pull from,” Duvall said. “So, I am kind of concerned about having an opportunity to have a conversation and ask (other board members) questions or anyone else on how do we rank and measure the criteria so we understand that we are all talking about the same things.”
After Wednesday’s meeting, Tech Park Executive Director Brent Birch said once the authority hires and hands out a contract to the winning architectural firm, the board will then issue another request for proposal (RFP) for the construction manager for the second phase of the project that does not yet have financing on the table. Little Rock-based East Harding Inc. was the construction manager for Phase One of the downtown development.
Two years ago, Chad Young, principal and chief designer at Little Rock’s Wittenberg, Delony & Davidson Architects, gave a 40-minute presentation that the board and other attending the authority’s monthly board meeting got a first look at the city-financed project to lure established IT companies, startups, knowledge-based firms and entrepreneurs to Little Rock’s Creative Corridor.
During his firm’s presentation Wednesday night, Young reminded the Tech Park directors that the Little Rock agency was familiar with the authority’s operations and mission and had the experience to get the project off the ground running.
“The next phase is really the hub of what this Tech Park block on Main Street is going to be all about,” he said.
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. The downtown development was accelerated in 2011 after Little Rock taxpayers approved a $22.5 million sales tax referendum to finance the project.
According to project’s preliminary plans, the next phase of the multi-stage technology and research park will be constructed on the parking lot between the current 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 now calls for six stages of development.
And although the bid proposal calls for a mix of office space and a state-of-the-art wet/dry laboratory facility for computing and science research, several of the presenters told board members it would be important to get input from them and the public on the finer details of the project before developing architectural renderings and designs.
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 at Wednesday’s meeting that the authority recently received the final 2017 disbursement of $1.68 million from city sales tax proceeds.
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. 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%.
Birch said once an architectural rendering of Phase Two is completed and the authority works with the design firm and construction manager to finalize total costs for the second phase of the city’s startup incubator, the Tech Park will then come up with a plan to get financing backing for the project.