The Little Rock Technology Park Authority will soon unveil Phase II architect renderings on the city’s downtown startup village, a larger but unfinanced five-story planned development next to the current 38,000-square foot Phase I headquarters at the door step of Main Street.
In his monthly report on Tech Park operations on Wednesday (Nov. 14) afternoon, Executive Director Brent Birch said he and board member Dickson Flake have been holding planning meetings with WER Architects/Planners and CDI Contractors LLC on possible designs for the next stop for the city’s multi-stage development to birth new entrepreneurs and attract emerging startups and high-paying tech firms to central Arkansas.
“We have had some really productive meetings,” Birch told Tech Park board members. “WER has done some pretty cool design stuff that we are planning to unveil at the December board meeting.”
In December 2017, Little Rock-based WER was hired as the architect for the second iteration of the tech village to be built in the constricted space between the KATV Channel 7 building at Fourth and Main Streets and the Tech Park headquarters at 417 Main St. In late August, the Tech Park board agreed to hire CDI as the construction manager for the second phase.
Since announcing plans for the second-stage development a year ago, the seven-person Tech Park board has engaged in several debates on the future of the downtown startup incubator. Birch said the WER-lead design team has spent a lot of time on blueprints for the first floor of the Phase II development, which several board members have said they hope will serve as the front door for the city’s startup community.
“A lot of effort has gone into how that first floor needs to be organized and the flow with everything going on there,” said Birch. “We will save that for next month when WER can really go through it because it’s not a done deal. This is like a big jigsaw puzzle and things have moved and changed even in the couple of meetings we’ve had to keep improving and bringing new ideas to this space.”
The original Tech Park master plan for the second phase called for a 160,000 square-foot STEM-focused office building that would include space for research and wet/dry labs, a key feature of the authority’s request for bids. Those preliminary plans also called for six stages of development over several years that would foster a Silicon Valley-like entrepreneurial culture in Little Rock’s central city.
Board member Kevin Zaffaroni told Birch that the Tech Park board should invite local citizens and public officials to attend the December unveiling so they will have a vested interest in the project, given that a $22.5 million sales tax referendum approved by Little Rock taxpayers accelerated financing for the first phase.
Concerning those finances, Birch and Flake in an earlier monthly financial snapshot reported that the downtown nonprofit will receive another $1.5 million from the City of Little Rock as part of the annual proceeds from the 2011 sales tax referendum. A second payout would be remitted in early 2019 after all the sales tax proceeds from 2018 are accounted for, he said.
Last year, the Tech Park received a total of $1.7 million from the sales tax initiative. Birch said the Tech Park will use those funds to pay off a taxable portion of a $15.4 million financing package given to the authority in April 2016 by a local bank consortium. Birch said the authority will pay off the $5.1 million taxable loan at an interest rate of 4.19% due before February.
That loan was split into the Centennial Bank-based loan package that included a larger $9.6 million tax-exempt portion due February 2022 at an interest rate of 2.95%, which the authority will begin making payments on early next year, Birch said.
In other business, The Tech Park director also gave a detailed report on recent developments at the downtown office park, including a record occupancy of 107 tenants since opening for business in April 2017 with only 16 leaseholders. The Tech Park’s six floors are now fully occupied with a mix of co-working space and workstations to semi-private offices and spacious suits that can house a small team.
Birch said that Jonesboro-based Ritter Communications is the largest tenant with a team that has expanded from three employees to around 15 by the end of this year. Earlier this year, the Tech Park board agreed to a long-term lease with the Little Rock Venture Center to occupy the Tech Park’s spacious sixth floor suite based on services they offer to the downtown startup village.
“They will pay rent as their services do not net to zero,” Birch said of the prorated five-year arrangement.
Birch also told the Tech Park board he plans to partner with local urban entrepreneur and social media impresario Benito Lubazibwa, CEO of Remix Ideas, to develop curriculum and a strategy to market affordable co-working space to attract a more diverse tenant base to the Tech Park community. That plan, Birch said, would allow small entrepreneurs to get access to co-working space for $50 a month, along with amenities such as high-speed internet, meeting room access and a downtown address.
“So, the combination of that curriculum and perhaps being able to solicit mentors out of this building would really start to create some synergies between those really early-stage companies coming from a diversity background with what is going on with much more established companies that are on the second floor of this building,” said Birch, the Tech Park’s lone employee.