Monday, December 19, 2011

The Great White Buffalo of Opportunities

Tomorrow the Pulaski Technical College Board of Trustees will make a potentially monumental decision on where to place their Culinary Institute. The Institute will likely end up on their southwest campus, near Benton/Bryant.

I’m not sure whether to be encouraged or thoroughly disheartened by this. Why encouraged, the 11 readers of this blog ask? Well, I saw the presentation Mayor Stodola gave and saw the 65 or so diverse partners who showed up to support locating the Institute downtown, many of whom gave impassioned pleas as to that end. I was impressed that the city put its money where its mouth is and in a very short period of time put together a deal that met or beat the price for placing the Institute near the edge of the city.

Disheartening, well that one’s a lot easier. This is a once in a twenty-or-so years opportunity. PTC has the opportunity to do something truly great for this city. Truly great. They can do something that will inspire development further throughout the downtown core. This will have numerous ripple affects in the way that only keystone projects can have. Like the River Market nearly twenty years prior, this project has a chance to inspire development and give confidence to investors in downtown properties. Great cities have great downtowns. Ours is moving that way, but we have a very long way to go.

Better yet, PTC has a chance to do something UALR (full confession: two-time alum here, & still paying it off) & UCA haven’t done - they can become truly integrated in the center of the city. PTC doesn’t have a low profile in the community, it has no profile for those who don’t have family or friends who attend or teach there. PTC is disconnected. It’s in Southwest Little Rock, off the freeway in a nearly industrial area. In North Little Rock it’s in the beautiful but removed Crystal Hill area. It has a lovely campus there but unlike the hill in Fayetteville, to name one place, there’s essentially nothing nearby. Locating downtown would change all of that. It would give PTC high visibility. And it would be good for the students. Their student union would essentially be downtown. 6th and Main with the Rep has two solid anchors for a creative corridor. This wise use of public funds is twinned by its incentivizing other development without other financial incentives for the nearby buildings (oh and if the Center Theater weren’t torn down, think what could be there! Alamo Draft House, anyone?)

But I fear the decision makers here are far too focused on the forest to see the trees. There appears to be a legitimate gap in financing some of the operational cost. The amount is somewhat debatable but it seems everyone on the Board of Trustees agrees that the downtown location will bring in more sales tax revenue thanks to the captured workforce who would likely eat at the student run restaurant and aid in tourism activities, particularly for the surprising large convention revenue that Little Rock has. I suspect that placing the Institute downtown would aid in student recruitment as well, not to mention build significant goodwill in any bond endeavor PTC tries to pass in the coming years.

I heard a lot about thinking about what’s best for the students of PTC. Many of these board members clearly hadn’t been students for some amount of time. The one student that spoke at the meeting expressed a clear preference for the downtown location. In fact, she said her fellow students felt the same way and she encouraged the board to reach out to the students and verify that. I’d be curious to know if that ever happened.

Sometimes things aren’t as simple as black and red. It takes the public sector to be out front on projects that benefit the community. This is an opportunity for such a project. It’s a very rare opportunity for such a project. Think of this investment as an advertising expense. The visibility and goodwill alone will pay for itself ten fold. I sure hope we don’t blow this one, as we have a tendency to do. History will judge the wisdom of such decisions. I fear it will not judge us wisely in this case. I hope I’m wrong.

UPDATE: As predicted. I think the comments on the Arkansas Blog get it right - clinging to mediocrity. The photo posted is linked from a commenter there

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