The Little Rock Technology Park Authority Wednesday (May 9) voted to accept a lone bid from Stone Ward to promote the city’s downtown startup village and pitch positive stories on the city’s emerging startup landscape to local and national media.
The unanimous vote by the Tech Park’s board of directors allows Executive Director Brent Birch to immediately begin negotiations with the local PR firm on the terms of a possible deal to provide marketing and media relations services for the authority.
Kevin Zaffaroni, who was presiding over the board meeting in place of Tech Park Chairman John Burgess, stressed that no contract would be inked until the authority is comfortable with the financial terms and services that Stone Ward can provide to support the nonprofit’s public mission to lure startups, knowledge-based firms and entrepreneurs to the Little Rock area.
“We will be able to make that decision once Brent comes back to us with more information,” said Zaffaroni, a former Acxiom Corp. executive.
Before approving the contract, Tech Park Director C.J. Duvall and other board members quizzed Birch on how the request for proposals (RFP) was disseminated to the public and asked several questions on why the authority received only one bid.
In outlining the bidding process, Birch said he received several “calls of interest” from other local PR firms on the RFP and one out-of-state offer but chose to recommend Stone Ward’s bid because of their local background and national influence.
“We received a lot of calls about the RFP, but I was surprised that we only got one bid,” Birch responded.
Board member Jay Chesshir, who is also president and CEO of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce told other directors on the city-backed nonprofit that he believes Stone Ward is a good fit for the authority given its experience with local and national advertising, PR and media outreach campaigns.
He also mentioned the chamber-led marketing campaign that the local PR firm organized for the City of Little Rock’s supposed courtship and long-shot bid to land Amazon Corp.’s $5 billion H2Q headquarters. That campaign was intended to attract new businesses that are “not Amazon,” by encouraging local residents to become Little Rock ambassadors by sharing their pride online and social media using the #LoveLittleRock hashtag.
Besides the t-shirts and Twitter hashtags, Stone Ward helped the city employ “guerilla” marketing techniques to spread the city’s unique anti-Amazon message, including purchasing a full-page ad in the daily edition of The Washington Post with a letter from Mayor Mark Stodola saying, “Hey Amazon, it’s not you, it’s us.” City officials also purchased an aerial banner with the “Love, Little Rock” tagline that flew over Amazon’s mammoth downtown headquarters in Seattle.
Critics of that campaign said the taxpayer dollars spent on the unorthodox campaign were ill-spent and expensive, citing the $137,000 expense for a full page, black & white daily ad in the Washington Post. On the other side, city and chamber officials have highlighted all the national press and “likes” the campaign received on social media, citing some media critics who called the break-up letter to Amazon “brilliant” and “genius.”
CONSTRUCTION MANAGER RFP NEXT
In other business, Birch told the Tech Park directors that Wednesday (May 16) is the deadline to receive RFPs to hire a new construction manager to lead the second phase development of the downtown startup incubator. He said the authority is still in talks with WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock to handle the design and planning of the unfinanced second phase of the downtown development.
Birch said there has been strong interest from local construction management firms to lead the next step for the six-phase project, which includes the development a new 17,500-square-foot building between the Channel 7 building at Fourth and Main Streets and the Tech Park headquarters at 417 Main St.
“All the brand name firms in town are interested in the project. I expect a pretty good response come next Wednesday,” Birch said.
Dickson Flake, a local real estate developer who is helping the Tech Park with some of the negotiations for the construction side of the project, told fellow board members that he believes interest is high because of the potential to influence “Main Street” development in downtown Little Rock.
“This one will get a lot more attention that Phase I,” Flake said of the authority’s current multi-tenant, 38,000-square-foot facility located at the center of the downtown district on Main Street that was largely financed through a $22.5 million sales tax referendum.
Also, on its busy monthly agenda, the Tech Park board unanimously approved a recommendation from Birch to award $84,388 contract to Evo Business Environments to outfit the 5th floor of the authority’s downtown offices with a modular wall system and office furnishings.
Birch told the board he already has one local startup interested in becoming a tenant once that space is ready for occupancy. Since the Tech Park held its grand opening for the six-floor Main Street office building a year ago, 43 companies or individuals have signed up to be tenants, he said.
“We are at about 90% occupancy and once we complete the 5th floor, I think it will fill up very quickly because there is already a lot of interest,” said Birch, the Tech Park’s lone employee.
Earlier in the meeting, Little Rock Venture Center CEO Lee Watson gave the Tech Park board an upbeat update on the progress of the FinTech Accelerator program that began last week.
On May 2, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola introduced the top executives of the 10 select companies at a standing-room only, kickoff party at the Tech Park.
Watson told the Tech Park board members that the companies chosen this year out of a pool of 281 applicants from 47 countries, 26 states and six continents were more advanced than their predecessor startups participating in the 12-week boot-camp in 2016 and 2017.