As many as 300 homes could be seized through eminent domain to build a technology park in Little Rock, Ark. Fuelled by a $22 million sales tax, the Little Rock Technology Park Authority is trying to build a $54 million new tech park as a “business incubator” near two universities. The proposed tech park would cover 30 acres with 10 multistory buildings for researchers from University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
But its three proposed sites are all in residential neighborhoods. According to Census data, almost one-third of local residents live below the poverty line. Outraged, citizens have mobilized against this blatant land grab. Homeowners, a local church and Occupy Little Rock have come together to form the We Shall Not Be Moved Coalition to protest Little Rock using “taxpayer money and eminent domain to force citizens out of their homes.”
Appearing on a local news show, the coalition emphasized that they support the tech park so long as “taxpayer money will not be used to displace fellow citizens.” Thanks to lobbying by the coalition, in June, Little Rock City Directors approved an ordinance to delay construction for six months, in order to review alternate sites. However, voting on an ordinance that would have banned using sales tax revenue (i.e. the $22 million) to build the technology park was deferred.
In addition, a Change.org petition sponsored by the coalition has gathered 230 signatures, including Sheldon Richman, editor of The Freeman. Richman attacked the proposal as “legal plunder—exploitation by the wealthy and well-connected. It’s an outrage against justice and individual rights.” A similar (and still) active petition on SignOn.org has garnered almost 300 signatures.
Yet the Authority adamantly insists on using eminent domain, so that tenants could have an easier commute. Seriously. According to a report published by ANGLE Technology Group for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce: “a successful research park in Little Rock needs to be between the two universities within a five-minute drive from each of them.” (Emphasis added.)
Back in May, Jay Chesshir, President and CEO of the LR Chamber of Commerce and Secretary of the Technology Park Authority Board, doubled down on this defense in an interview:
“You see from the research that to be successful in this type of this endeavor, you need to be within the five minute drive time between the research institutions and even more preferable, within walking distance…the proximity to the research institutions is absolutely key.”
But the Authority has declined to consider other options. In an August cover story, the Arkansas Times elaborates on 10 of these proposals—none would require removing residents, while nine sites are within a 10 minute drive of both universities. What’s even more galling is that the We Shall Not Be Moved Coalition has instead identified not one, not two, but twenty-two alternate locations in non-residential areas. While some of the locales are in commercial areas (and could be susceptible to eminent domain), many of the coalition’s suggestions are in unused buildings or on vacant lots. Plus, four of the coalition’s alternate sites are within a 10-minute commute. The Authority would rather violate property rights and force poor people out of their homes, instead of having tenants endure a slightly longer commute.
In addition, there are concerns that the intent here of using eminent domain may be to help private businesses. According to its founding legislation, the Authority is a “public corporation” that serves a “public purpose and use” through
“the growth of Arkansas-based businesses whose focus on research and development of products and services will serve to diverse Arkansas’s economy; and a strategic alliance between business and higher education that has the potential to substantially improve Arkansas’s economy.”
In other words, helping private enterprise grow is “public use.” While many of the tech park tenants are expected to conduct publicly funded research, the park will also have commercial enterprises. In the ANGLE report, the Authority is expected to attract start-ups in biomedicine, IT, and nanotechnology. As the study elaborates, “the Authority, Chamber of Commerce, and others leading the outreach marketing for the park will aggressively seek large technology companies, government agencies and others” for leases. According to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, this tech park will “commercialize the wealth of intellectual property” created in the area. No wonder renters are expected to pay between half a million to a million dollars each year.
After the infamous Kelo decision, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of using eminent domain to develop land for Pfizer, 44 states reformed their eminent domain laws to provide greater protection for property owners. Sadly, state legislators have failed to protect natural rights in the Natural State: Arkansas received an “F” for eminent domain reform, having passed nothing.
For more information on eminent domain, check out the Institute for Justice’s many policy papers, including our “50 State Report Card on Eminent Domain Reform,” and how Anaheim fostered billions in economic development, while prohibiting eminent domain. Be sure to get a copy of IJ’s “Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide” to fight land grabs in your neighborhood.