REX NELSON: Little Rock's tech pitch

Posted: October 25, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

I first knew Brent Birch as a youth baseball coach, and a good one at that. He had lettered in baseball at the University of Arkansas from 1990-93 and played for the school's legendary coach at the time, Norm DeBriyn.

Birch was on the 1990 Southwest Conference championship team and later was awarded the Bill Dickey Scholarship by Stephens Inc., which goes to the Razorbacks' outstanding senior baseball player. He coached our youngest son's team at Little Rock's Junior Deputy League, and his knowledge of and passion for the sport were evident.

I later came to know Birch as an avid duck hunter, a man who often wrote about the sport when he worked for the Arkansas Business Publishing Group and is now completing a book on the history of duck hunting on the Grand Prairie of Arkansas. Brent's day job is director of the Little Rock Technology Park, and that's the subject of our discussion on this day as we have lunch downtown. I often walk around the corner from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newsroom to get my morning caffeine fix at the sleek Blue Sail Coffee location on the tech park's ground floor. The place usually is filled with young workers who give energy to what just a few years ago was a desolate stretch of Main Street.

"When we moved into the building, we had 12 companies here," Birch says. "We now have 38. A lot of them are one-person and two-person operations, but that's the whole point of this first phase. We want these people to stay in Little Rock rather than going to Nashville, Dallas, Austin, St. Louis or some other city. Prior to us opening downtown, the technology sector was in silos in Little Rock. People didn't talk to each other. I believe we've played a role in changing that. For the state's largest city not to capitalize on homegrown ideas would have been a disaster."

The grand opening for the Main Street development was in April. A consortium of banks came forward with a $17.1 million loan, and work on Phase 1 of the tech park began in April 2016. The 38,000-square-foot incubator on Main Street connects three existing properties. Now techies can interact with each other. Discussions about a technology park began a decade ago, and the city of Little Rock, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences signed on as sponsors. Little Rock taxpayers are contributing $22.5 million as part of a 2011 sales-tax initiative. The cost of the first phase was $12.6 million for property acquisition and $6.8 million for renovations.

Birch told his board earlier this month: "All in all, I think the tenants are pleased with what we've been able to put together." Birch and the board are planning Phase 2, which will consist of construction on what's now a parking lot between the current complex and the KATV, Channel 7, studios. The facility will include not only office space but also labs for research.

"The research stage is when you'll see UAMS and UALR enter the picture in a big way," Birch says. "They'll be seeking grants to pay for research. Meanwhile, we'll be discussing strategies to raise capital. We also plan to pay off the debt on the first phase during the next five years. We don't intend to keep piling debt on top of debt. It's difficult right now to give a timetable for when the second phase might be done. We just need to be ready when the next big things come out of the research already being done at UALR and UAMS so we don't lose new companies to other cities."

There initially was talk of a campus for the tech park away from downtown. A plan that would have resulted in houses near UALR being torn down drew strong opposition. Birch calls it "a blessing in disguise" that the facility ended up downtown.

"Building campuses from scratch was the old way of doing science and technology parks," he says. "That's not the way things are going these days. People want urban environments so they can walk and ride bicycles to work. We give them that. I just wish more Arkansas natives knew what's now happening in downtown Little Rock. I bet most people who live west of Mississippi Street in Little Rock have no idea what's going on down here. They still think of downtown as big bank lobbies and government office buildings with security guards sitting behind desks. We're about as far from that as you can get.

"This is more than just office space. What we're doing is creating a community of like-minded people. They want to be downtown. It's all about the environment and the interaction they get to have. We can give them the flexibility to grow and shrink, something they wouldn't have if they were leasing space in another part of town. We're already paying to educate a lot of these people. Let's give them a reason to stay in Arkansas and do what they do best."

Birch says a major misconception was that the tech park would focus on recruiting companies from other states. While he's delighted when out-of-state entities contact him about possible space ("Little Rock always exceeds their expectations in every way," Birch says), most of those utilizing the tech park are homegrown.

"There's a lot of tech talent in this city," Birch says. "We had people come out of Systematics and then Alltel and then Acxiom who went out on their own. Now those people are helping us train a new generation of talent. Our goal is for these people to grow too big for us to house them. There's plenty of available real estate in downtown Little Rock. Let's help them outgrow us."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/25/2017