Little Rock Begins Talks To Hire Construction Manager For Downtown Tech Park

The Little Rock Technology Park Authority on Wednesday unanimously approved a measure giving Executive Director Brent Birch the power to negotiate a deal to hire East Harding Inc. as the construction manager for the first phase of the $30 million downtown tech park development.

The vote came with the caveat that talks with the Little Rock construction firm include a requirement that a certain percent of minority subcontractors are hired for the planning, design and construction of the tech park development. Following negotiations with East Harding, Birch then must bring the agreed upon deal back to the seven-person board for final approval.

“Go negotiate with these guys and then let’s get moving,” Tech Park Board Chair Mary Good told Birch.

Before a vote was taken, Birch told the board that any of the seven contractors that submitted bids for the project were fully capable of fulfilling the requirements of the tech park’s specifications. He said his decision in choosing East Harding came down to their past renovation and architectural work on some of the buildings involved in the project.

“All of them were very qualified, very talented and capable …, so we kind of felt good in any of their hands,” Birch said. “It came down to East Harding’s experience with (renovation) of the building that the Department of Higher Education is in, which we will own, and they also did some renovations to the Exchange Bank Building, which we will also own and be the first building we will finish out.”

Birch added: “They know a lot about that whole block that we will need to figure out to get our buildings up and running and completed.”

According to the request for qualifications (RFQ), the property that will be developed includes the former Exchange Bank Building, located at the northeast corner of Capitol Avenue at Maine Street, which is leased to the State of Arkansas for a 15-year term expiring September 20, 2027. There are 78 parking spaces included in the state lease. In addition, the state leases 85 parking spaces on a yearly basis.

The location of the property is the north side of Capitol Avenue on both sides of Main Street with one additional parcel on the north side of Fourth Street. On the east side of Main Street, the site is bordered by Scott Street between Capitol Avenue and Fourth Street.

In other business, the tech park board also unanimously approve a revised “combo loan” proposal from a local bank consortium for a $17.5 million financing package to begin the first phase of the project.

Board Director Dickson Flake estimated the authority would save more than $337,000 in interest expenses based on a lower tax-exempt interest rate to finance a portion of the $17.5 million loan.

In response to a July 19 request for bids, a consortium led by Conway-based Centennial Bank proposed to finance the project at a 4.19% interest rate over a six-year period. The revised proposal approved by the board included a combination deal to finance the tax-exempt portion of the loan at a six-year interest rate of 2.95%, Dickson said.

The financing package will allow the publicly-financed authority to close a deal with Stephens Inc. for nearly 142,500 square feet of building space, or 3.25 acres, in the downtown area that will serve as the city’s proposed tech park.

At the tech park board’s last meeting in early August, Birch said the authority hopes to close on the Stephens deal by the end of the year, and begin gutting the downtown buildings purchased for development by January. The tech park chief also said that the authority hopes to have its first corporate tenants by the summer of 2016.

Earlier at Wednesday’s meeting, Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub Executive Director Warwick Sabin gave a presentation on the work the North Little Rock nonprofit was doing to encourage entrepreneurial and startup activity in Central Arkansas.

Following Sabin’s presentation, C.J. Duvall and other board members quizzed Sabin for advice – including how the authority should go about attracting startup companies and entrepreneurs to the tech park.

“Do something. Get something started,” Sabin said. “Not everything has to be perfect. Activity begets more activity.”

After the Q&A with Sabin, the board engaged in an informal back-and-forth discussion throughout the meeting about different approaches to attracting tenants, investment capital and interest to the downtown development. Nothing, however, was voted on or approved.