Thursday, April 30, 2009

I only ask questions

I only pose this question. Today the President had this to say about the filing for bankruptcy by Chrysler:

"This is not a sign of weakness but rather one more step on a clearly chartered path to Chrysler's revival."


If such a statement is even marginally true for Chrysler, what would an actual bankruptcy for the City of Pittsburgh mean. How about this quote from the Prez saying that Chrysler will emerge "stronger and more competitive"

City finances not on the top of the news except for some election exhortations? True enough, but compare the debt situation here to a city that actually has filed for bankruptcy: City of Vallejo, CA. No, Act 47 does not count even as bankruptcy-lite as some describe it. Bankruptcy is bankruptcy. .

Put another way, what would be the state of the city today if it actually went through a bankruptcy in 1993 when it literally did all but run out of money to keep the lights on.

**********

Speaking of the city. Random newsoid on the mayoral race. This isn't really news in itself, but I find it curious that a Youngstown TV station chose to run a summary AP blurb on the mayoral race here in the city: Pittsburgh mayor has heavy financial advantage in primary. It also has a curious line in it that describes Pat D. as, and this is a quote: "a 41-year-old first-time council member once perceived to be a Ravenstahl ally".

huh? a one time Ravenstahl ally? I missed that somewhere along the line. Not sure that is the main tag line a challenger wants to have out there.

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To twitter or not, part II

Where to go next? We will be talking about reassessments for years. I could probably have this be an all-assessment blog, but who wants to do that. I keep telling myself I need to write a history of property assessments in Allegheny County. Other economic news of late include the interest in casino jobs, renewed interest at the Don Allen site, and I still have this tome of stuff on transit trends to put up for Ken.

But before it's too stale an apology... over on Pittsblog recently I was a bit harsh on Brian Oneill for a column he wrote on his aversion to Twitter. Brian was good enough not to respond by pointing out that I don't twitter either. :-(. There is also a curious bit of research out lately showing that Twitter quitters outnumber those who stay. He is also vindicated by some similar coverage of that in BusinessWeek.

update: Ok, ok.. I surrender. I have created a twitter account. What I will do with it? We will see. It’s all Brian O’s fault. Plus a few who emailed me to point out I was a Luddite.

My post was meant to be a more general comment on the media's seeming slowness to adapt to new things, nothing about Brian himself. That and I really liked the excuse he gave me to put up that youtube video I found that explained how to use a rotary phone to new users. It was never meant to be as allegorical as it is now almost a century after it was filmed.

and I forgot.. The City Paper this week is all over this issue of the media/blog/internet nexus. See also Potter's local commentary on same.

However I recently noticed that the editor of the Pittsburgh Business Times is Twittering. Certainly more useful than the local version of a biz news summary they used to have. Is that still running? So maybe there is hope for Twitter in the media.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

stop the presses..... reassessments inbound

Or I suppose, stop the packets(1)... Read for yourself:

http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/breaking/s_622865.html
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09119/966406-455.stm

Wow. I am told Judge Wettick has never been overturned on appeal. His ruling is upheld again if I believe the headline. Still reading the ruling. Honestly I really wondered whether the state supreme court would rule against Wettick even if they agreed with him because of the potential turmoil it could have across the state. As I am sure Dan O. is already pointing out, Allegheny County is far from the only county to use a base year assessment system.

update: still reading, but aparently it was a majority decision. like double wow. and I will add that Bram was only off by 6 weeks (see comments in that post), which is pretty good when it comes to predicting the machinations of the state supreme court.

Where to start? Below are my relevant posts and other commentary on property assessments here. I will only add a couple things. Gotta give some points in judicial courage to Judge Wettick and the majority on the state supreme court. And as I said before in one of those posts, thus marks the real beginning of the governors race.

Wettick Waiting

View from the Bench

Wondering if Wettick need not wait?

Base year bye bye

Assessments in the news again and again and again

Groundhog day in the assessment office


Which is also my title for one of the few things in ink I have on this:

Groundhog day in the assessment office


______________
1) WWVB will explain that.

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POD(car)-Burgh

look at that... I've said before the Spine Line was close to being looked at again.. but more than that the county says a Downtown to Pittsburgh link could be based on Personal Rapid Transit technology. Who suggested something like that?

Excellent. but don't let Ken try to cost that out. He might come to love the buses.

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Williamson Turn

OK, I really don't do state level politics, but everyone is commenting on the political spasm of the moment: the conversion of Arlen Specter from Republican to Democrat. Deep down I suspect Arlen is neither Republican or Democrat and its fairest to say he has merely changed his registration from one major party to anoother.

Seriously though... has anyone as successful as Arlen has been in the political world been an enigma for so long. Single Bullet Theory anyone?

Yet Arlen is not as far out there as you would think as Pennsylvania goes. Put another way, if Arlen didn't exist in Pennsylvania politics, we would have to invent him. Trying to make sense of state level Pennsylvania politics starts as a fools game and descends from there. There may be signs that the Commonwealth may be shifting into one camp or another, but the recent history of state level political success is a definition of neurosis.

Case in point. Consider that in the 2000 general election both Rick Santorum and Al Gore won Pennsylvania by decent margins. This isn't a comment on one side or the other. If there was just one conflicted voter out there who would split their vote like that I would recommend therapy. Two together would have me crossing to the other side of the street. Yet that single electorate is large enough to have been the decisive voting block for statewide races for decades. Good or bad I leave to others, I will just say it's a fine line between maverick and Sybil.

What's it mean? I wish I knew. If you can figure out who these folks are and what makes them tick you could make a fortune as a political consultant in this state.. . Arlen is really a logical result of Pennsylvania's core conflictions. Republicans that vote like Democrats or Democrats that vote like Republicans might be the modal office holder in the state. Maybe it's just moderation, but it gets awfully confusing as you listen to these folks try to speak to their political bases. Thus the pain of listening to Arlen of late as he tried to deal with his little primary problem. All of his recent public statements are already being disected by the media. That will continue on through the fall election most likely. My advice, don't try to apply logic to it. If it starts to make sense to you, you have been absorbed.

Thus in the end important statewide races often turn on things that may not have any philosophical consistency. The oft quoted rule that the governors office shifts between parties every 8 years is as superficial as it has been immutable. Specter may be the exact type of office holder a core group of voters want. Whether that works one more time for the Senator we will find out.. But there will be a few elections between now and then. Remember we are talking about next years election.

So goes another day in Pennsylvania politics. I'm sure it makes sense in base 8 or fits into the unified field theory somehow. It's screwey enough for these high profile races that at least have the advantage of national focus and media coverage. Go into the statewide row office or those commonwealth court judicial races (quick, name a commonwealth court candidate!) and you enter the twilight zone.

and hey, they tell me there is an election here in less than 3 weeks. I think? At least there is a rumor to that effect. Speaking of the election coming up. I didn't make this recent headline up: Dowdometer: Hot, Flat, and Dowded (also, naked Pat)

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More Nuclear Power Sooner

News from China on their construction of new nuclear power plants based on Westinghouse's AP-1000 reactor. The key bit of news in that is that they say their construction plans for these plants have sped up. Chinese stimulus? Via Pittsburgh.

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Go Figure: Unemployment R Us

No hiding, the unemployment rate data out today is bad no doubt. The full blow by blow from the state is online here. But some perspective at least in a few factoids:


  • As of March, number of consecutive months the Pittsburgh unemployment rate has trailed below the US rate: 30.

  • How much of the recession have we missed thus far? Average unemployment rate in 2008 for the US: 5.7, for Pittsburgh: 4.1

  • Last year that that the local unemployment rate (annually) was so far below the US: 1976

  • Percentage of months in the last 30 years that the local unemployment rate has been at 7.2 or higher? 29%

  • and if nothing else... Pirates attendance is up. an economic indicator? Probably not.
Note that the Trib version of the bad news points out in its last full paragraph that the local labor force actually went up despite the bad unemployment rate number. In fact, seasonally adjusted the size of the local labor force is just a tiny bit (as in a small fraction of a percentage point) below its all time high which was hit just the month prior. Again I think that is mostly reflecting migration patterns of workers in particular between Pittsburgh and some of the regions we normally swap population with. So unlike some past recessions which were indeed periods of massive population loss for the region, the opposite may be true this time around. We won't have enough data to confirm that either way for some time, but if that is really at the root of the unemployment rate increases.. it makes this all a very different event than past recessions for us.


and again, my rust belt watch:

Unemployment Rates: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit - 2000 to March 2009





Detroit only increased unemployment rate a bit, from 13 to 13.2% and Cleveland actually came down a bit from 8.5 to 8.3%. I'd read more into that but my call is that these little moves pale in comparison to what the impact will be dependent on the outcome of all the machinations in the auto industry. If GM really slices jobs as much as they are saying they want to or either GM or Chrysler really go through a bankruptcy in one form or another than who knows what will be the result.



What is getting to Pittsburgh? You just can't ignore the sheer impact the credit crisis had everywhere. Difficult credit has and will be impacting a wide range of investment for a long time... and as much as we talk about a new Pittsburgh, there still is a steel and manufacturing industry here. The global steel industry in particular has pretty much gone from dead to deader across the board and similar stories can be found in almost all durable goods production. With slumps in both construction and auto manufacturing in the fall reaching near epic proportions, you are seeing steel production bottom out as well.


But stimulus is coming right? Has to be a lot of steel in the infrastructure coming down the road. Even if that happens, manufacturing employment is at its lowest levels ever in Pittsburgh... if not in sheer numbers than in proportion of the workforce. Sometimes I think words like post-industrial are overused, but we may really define it at this point. In fact, long before this recession I would point out that our location quotient in manufacturing employment was below 1.0.. that means that we are less of a manufacturing region than the US is on average across the nation. Think about that some. It is even more extreme now.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Pittsburgh 1815

Someone dug up a great letter on the economy and the legal profession in 1815 Pittsburgh. If that is for real all I can say, for all the things that change.....


http://genitalesga.blogspot.com/2009/04/1815-letter-from-pittsburgh-paints.html

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Larryville International

I turn the page and what do I see... ever more positive press on Lawrenceville. The Financial Times Weekend currently has a whole piece with multiple pictures on the neighborhood: Diamond in the rust. Theme is centered around some Richard Florida quotes describing Lawrenceville as a "Next" neighborhood and a creative class ideal... or could be. Something like that. I guess that makes it the 'it' neighborhood in the 'it' city. Those who wish can probably get a copy of the FT at the larger bookstores.

So if you happen to come across a wandering Brit looking for engineers and bohemians you know why.

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North Side meets the Great White North

Again Jim R. caught some news of note from our neighbors to the north. From the Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator eh. See their column from yesterday: How Pittsburgh's pain can heal Hamilton. Which is a follow up to a story a few weeks ago covering a trip by former mayor Tom Murphy: Lesson our politicians can learn from Buffalo: Don't do what we did.

But beyond the general economic interest in the stories, the more recent story starts out with a fairly amazing quote from the former mayor. Any local political observer who remembers the Murphy years will want to take a look. Just by pointing that out I worry I may drive regular commenter "MH" here into some form of apoplectic shock along with a few others in town I know. I admit to being a little speechless myself in reaction to that quote.

Nonetheless, I stand by my past suggestion that at the very least the Hot Metal Bridge ought to be named for the former mayor. Still may need some time to heal old wounds before that goes very far.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Relocate where?

I'll be honest, even I am getting tired of these lists. But RelocateAmerica has a list saying Pittsburgh is the third best place to live in the US. Also, Wheeling is listed in their top 100 places as well.

It's a curious Pittsburgh writeup. Like so many such things they confuse city and region...and for some reason it says the city's population is 359,000 which I don't think is coming from any source I am aware of. It describes One Oxford Center as 'futuristic' which isn't so odd, but it also says " we used to call it the Jetson's Building". I used to work in the building and that's new on me. and speaking of Rich F. it also syas the city has "an 'Eds and Meds' approach to employment. These economic sectors have helped Pittsburgh attract and retain the much-sought-after "creative classes."

My call, it's mostly marketing following marketing at this point. It's like we are the new 'it' place.. but hey any media is good media they say.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Buses rolling

So if you read the stories out today on transit ridership and you think there has been no impact of recent route cuts on ridership.... Here is the fairest comparison I could compile using the data PAT supplies to the feds which compares trends here vs. the US. I have made this all as an index number using October 2006 as a base to compare recent trends. The result looks like:

Estimated Unlinked Passenger Trips (October 2006=1.00), Red = US, Blue= PAT

The story is a continued loss of riders. Any mitigation of that trend over just the last couple of years has to take into account the huge increase in gas prices over some of that time. As we have seen in the past, those types of gains can go away as fast as they came so it's best to not confuse the issue.

Also need to account for population and employment change. Pop change here is lower than the US, but a lot of transit ridership is commuter/employment driven (is that a pun?) and as we have pointed out elsewhere, the last year has seen a lot better economic picture here than most everywhere else. Barring last month the Pittsburgh region is near the highest employment levels ever recorded in the region and if we were just holding our transit usage constant, transit ridership would be pushing near highs as well. So transit is clearly not capturing any of these new workers who are most likely commuting by auto.. and I bet commuting alone for the most part.

The bottom line, Pittsburgh trails almost everywhere else in a trend toward driving vs transit. We used to be a national leader in transit ridership, something we have decided is not worth maintaining into the future. So all of this Earth Day talk, and the impacts of 'greening' of things on the margin are all being obviated by our driving trends. Yet people love to talk about greening a building, or turning off lights for an hour here or there, but they just ignore the policies being put in place that are pushing tens of thousands of people into driving their cars. I don't get folks who talk about the importance of green things, but are more than happy to let public transit wither? Be honest with what you believe, if you believe environmental issues are too expensive to maintain that is a choice, but you can't have your cake and eat it too.

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Real estate again

Caught by Jim R. is the latest counter-indicator of the local real estate market. Basically it's bad everywhere except Pittsburgh according to this AP story. Number of sales went down, but only in Pittsburgh did prices go up. Why sales down? Maybe all those people who would normally be leaving are not doing so. Maybe the people who would be moving here can't sell there homes where they are. It all fits with the news stories of late that overall migration trends are down which hits real estate obviously.

Also making the rounds is the news data from Realtytrac on foreclosures by region for the 1st quarter of 2009. No sign of Pittsburgh in their top 25 list.

maybe a vacation real estate story: NYT covers Somerset County: Think Poconos, on the Other Side of Pennsylvania.

and related: WSJ discusses the PNC/Nat City acquisition: Regulators Fell One Bank, Spare a Rival

also related... was this in any local news? AP has a story pointing out how a local firm Home Loan Services has a chunk of bailout related business from the Treasury Dept. to handle foreclosure mitigation.

Finally, on the value of North Shore real estate. Forbes has released its annual valuation of professional baseball teams. Not withstanding a few wins the Pirates are ranked 2nd from last among all franchises at $288 million. If you adjust for inflation PNC Park cost how much? Mentioned earlier, but some fun stats in the 2009 Major League Baseball Fan Cost Index recently out as well.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Detroit again, Richard Florida and Pittsburgh

Didn't catch this myself, but from the peanut gallery is an NPR story on Detroit mostly, but he has some positive comments in passing from former Burgher Richard Florida on Pittsburgh.

Take a listen to: It's Time For The Post-Automotive Era

and as bad as it is for Detroit these days, the recent news that GM is planning on shuttering all of its plants for 9 weeks this summer (I think that is the news) means its already high unemployment is going to shoot up. And like Pittsburgh 25 years ago, that Detroit unemployment rate is high despite the migration of workers I suspect is already taking place. If they were remaining in place, that regional unemployment rate could be even higher.

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Beat by Utah?

Via Workforce Developments is a note that Utah is the first state to launch an iPhone app. Any reason we can't do that here? How about a pothole reporter application? It takes a picture, records the location and sends a report into the city. The state could have the an app that identified the wine inventory of local Wine and Spirits stores... ok, that may be a bit ambitious.

Which brings to mind something that will not make sense unless you know the answer to who this is... a question nobody has been able to answer as yet. But who is this past-famous Burgher:




Famous would be a stretch.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Politics confuses me sometimes

Here’s what I just don’t get about the strange case of County Councilman Chuck McCullough, once the single biggest rising star of the local Republican party who even I suggested might be a future candidate for Allegheny County Chief Executive.

This is America and one of the great things about America is that the standards to put someone in jail are all geared to ensure no one is wrongly convicted. Innocent until proven guilty is something we are all proud of and at this point it is quite true the Councilman remains unconvicted of any crime. While he may contest the accusations against him, even the minor points include a few things that are beyond the pale. Things like paying his sister $60/hour to be an unskilled companion. Forget the $millions it looks like he was trying gain control of or any of the other issues he is accused of presently. Beyond any criminality, it's hard to see what defense he has against the charge he was exploiting his client.

Something nobody has said explicitly, but I have to ask the obvious. People forget the odd story of how he was elected in the first place. How does someone who has dropped out of a race, also forced out of his day job and being hit with media coverage of the worst kind still get elected? The core accusations are that he was using Mrs. Jordan's money for political contributions that she would not have condoned. Sizable contributions . Did McCullough buy his way to elected office? Sure seems that way no matter how the preliminary hearings taking place come out. With audacity only a politician could muster, he said at the time it was was the 'Hand of God' behind his unlikely victory.

I hope most agree that the standards to merely keep out of jail are not the same for example as the standard to keep your job, any job. Most of us would lose our jobs given allegations of wrongdoings far less conclusive than what the news is reporting for this case. In fact the Councilman has resigned his regular job as the solicitor for Upper St. Clair, yet remains in elected office?? You really hope that the standards to hold public office and retain the support of the public are even farther removed from the standards of a criminal conviction. Given what is fairly well known about the case I would think some public officials would take it upon themselves to resign voluntarily. That’s not to say I am not overly surprised the Councilman remains on the job. Many a politician is defiant to the end even in the face of much greater public outcry. Just think of this Blago character.

He does not resign of course because nobody really seems to want him to. There isn't much public outcry. What I just don’t get at all is why there is almost nobody out there calling for him to resign or be removed from office. Virtual silence on the whole situation is coming from both inside and outside of the County Court House nor from anywhere else. Judging from the news coverage of the situation, none of the Councilman’s colleagues of either party are saying much at all about the situation. It’s like it isn’t happening. You would think the bar association would be interested in some of the proceedings, but again at least as far as what I read in the news it just isn't an issue. Maybe some things are cooking, but it’s all just odd when you think about it.

When you consider the fireworks that would erupt in almost any political body over far less egregious issues you have to ask what is up here? Just imagine if instead of being accused of bilking a little old lady of six figures, or potentially getting nefarious access to a $15 million dollar trust, he merely gave a stereo worth a few hundred dollars to a potential client. Almost makes me have some sympathy for Pat Ford et al. Almost. The comparison to the amounts in play with Twanda's misappropriation raises a real question to me. When you take into account the truth that the money Twanda used illegally was from council discretionary budgets, money that one could argue was probably going to be used badly no matter what... then her crimes pale in comparison to what is being accused here.. in this McCullough case there are real people who essentially had their retirement assets stolen. Bad enough even if the victim was not an elderly woman in need of protection. I must be missing something. If, and I repeat if, indeed this all goes badly in criminal court for the Councilman, some of us will look to see how the sentence he gets compares to what Twanda recently completed.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beyond the title

A lot more complex than the title would imply... from Philly's examiner.com Pittsburgh computer game columnist (I'm serious) is: Pittsburgh's Steel Industry Facing Challenges as Economy Slides. It's not what you would expect.

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Mr. Nielsen votes for

So I just have one question.... Does anyone know what the TV ratings were for the mayoral debate that aired yesterday evening. Make that two questions. What were the ratings at the beginning of the broadcast, and what were the ratings by the end.

I would love to run a poll to see how many city residents are aware there is an election for mayor coming up in exactly 4 weeks. I guarantee you somebody out there was wondering why Entertainment Tonight was preempted. They were probably pretty disappointed as well. I am not absolutely sure I would blame them having watched the whole thing myself.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

mapping the reccession

Slate has a great interactive map on showing the employment impacts of the recession. You have to check out the full map.

But here is a blowup of the greater DC/Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Detroit corridor showing job losses since November which really captures the situation close to home.




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Sunday, April 19, 2009

You should be watching the game (in China)

Via Pittsburgh Sports and Mini Ponies... (don't ask me) is a link to some YouTube clips of Penguins support from China. Just take a look.

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2nd home Pittsburgh?

Have no idea who this is, but a blog post out there has a note from someone buying a 2nd home in Pittsburgh for no reason other than they like it here.. and as an investment it seems. It's interesting in that it appears the author has no other direct connection to the city, but they don't elaborate too much on it. I feel I should be able to place that parcel just from the picture, but can't quite figure it out exactly. Lawrenceville somewhere? But there is a new argument in there for attracting out of town investment in our real estate: can't do worse than your 401K of late.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

fast track-less

Lots of news coverage of the plan (vision?) to build high speed rail from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. A dour note on the concept comes from the Philly biz writer Joe DiStefano.

I'm not opposed to the idea, but I do think that it would be an awfully lot more useful for us to enhance the DC to Pittsburgh rail link. Either way the topography is a big challenge. A DC to Pittsburgh link could be extended to hit Youngstown and Cleveland as well. Problem is of course that from a political perspective, an intra state project has the backing of the state's body politic as is implied by DiStefano's update. There is a lot less political benefit for the state to push inter-state projects. It's a problem that goes well beyond new rail lines.

High speed rail need not be, probably isn't in most cases, Maglev. Nonetheless, the McKeesport Daily News says the plan could be a big benefit for Maglev. As does the Beaver County Times. Maybe, although the new head of the ACCD described Maglev as overkill, although he was talking about it's application to the concept of a future spine line project between Oakland and Downtown. Even former PG DC chief Ann McFeatters weighs in via Scripps on the plans for high speed rail. Though she says maglev has been in the works here for just 19 years... I am pretty sure it's a lot longer than that. At the very least, I have In this old post I put up this image from 1985 when the maglev concept was routinely mentioned.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Cleveburgh watch: PNC, GM

Sure to produce more angst up the turnpike... read from Cleveland how PNC to replace signs on National City headquarters by July. Note both the rendering and the comments.

And I see news that GM is looking at closing more plants.... I have to say that driving by the nearly empty parking lot at the Lordstown plant last week was a bit scary. They are still operating one shift, but it just didn't seem like it. For the moment at least the news is that the plant is part of GM's future... but you never know these days.

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Iron and coke and chromium steel

Didn't catch this earlier... but the March Site Selection magazine features Consol's new Pittsburgh headquarters. See: Job One: Capture Mobile Workers

Speaking of coal though... I am sure folks have noticed the print and TV media campaign featuring Braddock's John Fetterman. The ads look to be placed by the Environmental Defense Action Fund with the theme: Carbon Caps = Jobs. Quite a new level of exposure for him to be the star of a national media buy.

It's a funny thing though how steel demand is impacted by energy and environmental issues. Remember US Steel once bought Marathon oil, probably with profit made from selling steel pipe to the oil industry. Even though they then moved the company's headquarters to Houston they wanted us to call the Steel Building the USX building, a moniker still in use today since "600 Grant Street" wouldn't stick.

Now US Steel's Edgar Thompson plant in Braddock is the rump of the region's heavy industry, and by the choice of Fetterman it is also the symbol being highlighted in the media campaign supporting carbon cap legislation. Yet Edgar Thompson is an integrated steel plant dependent entirely on coke... in particular coke from US Steel's nearby Clairton Coke Works. Coke being nothing more than baked coal and coke plants are inevitably some of dirtier industrial operations there are. Remember it's the infamous Liberty Monitor located in Clairton that is always driving local environmental metrics out of whack because it sits in the footprint of the coke batteries' plume... so it all just comes out a bit peculiar how these issues are linked in the ads. But the imagery is pretty impactful.

All that being said, the recent news that the $billion+ upgrade of the Clairton Coke Works is being deferred is probably the single worst bit of economic news for the region resulting from the recession. Not just for the jobs it entails, but also for the environmental improvement that investment was going to bring. I wonder a bit how much closing of the LTV Coke batteries in Hazelwood a decade ago has impacted the all of the region's recent riverfront development in the intervening years. The irony is that in the fight to keep that plant open, or for a new owner to reopen it, the local steel workers were typically fighting against greater environmental restriction. At the end of the day it was a lot of jobs that were lost as well. For more on that it is worth rereading what CMU's Joel Tarr once wrote: The plume is gone. But we can't forget Hazelwood.

and apologies to Billy Joel.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Soon I will be obsolete....

What will I do next? Coming soon:

http://www.data.gov/

Also, opensecrets.gov has made available clean datasets to the public.Who knows if I will have time to chomp on this, but this could be interesting. It's also a reminder. How long have we been waiting for true electronic campaign finance records from the city and/or the county? This being the IT capital of the world we like to think. Must be an awfully long ride from Wean Hall to the City/County Building.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reading list: bio, bio, everywhere

Just going down the reading list on the right....

A perpetual topic here, but Business Expansion Magazine talks about biotech. A 2nd article looks at the biotech industry in Dublin, Ohio outside Columbus. They talk about Pittsburgh as well in: Visionaries And Strategies: When Regions Unite, Businesses Succeed. Is anyone saying Cleveburgh?

Not available online except to subscribers, but some may want to go and find a copy of the current Economic Development Quarterly which has an article on the Biotech industry in Cincinnati.

Not on the reading list, but ESPN talks the economy with Pirates President Frank Coonelly .

and Fester predicted it, but bond insurer AMBAC has been downgraded to junk. It matters. Oh nevermind, I will just send email to Fester.

Not new... actually from a couple years ago, but Area Development Magazine had an interview with Dennis Yablonsky in 2007. Might be worth a read now as he starts his new gig downtown.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Steeler nation all year round

Down in DC, the police were called to deal with the case of the stolen Steelers banner. At least they had their priorities straight and didn't respond directly.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Map the Mess

In Cleveland today talking about the Pittsburgh story, as it were. Yet there are also a lot of things to learn from our neighbor up the turnpike. If I had to pick one thing that really ought to be replicated here just take a look at:

Map the Mess: Citizens Cleaning Up Cuyahoga County, An Open Source Project

or how about:

http://www.efficientgovnow.org/

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Merchant Marine here and elsewhere

In light of today's news:

From the PG in 2004: Unsung Heroes of World War II: Seamen of the Merchant Marine still struggle for recognition. That piece actually spurred me to send in a letter to the editor which wasn't printed at the time. If I can find it I will append it here later.

Also, not to steal Jason T's thunder, but his brief history of the SS Mckeesport is a good read as well.

and while the threats have morphed the dangers have not. My father served as a member of the Naval Armed Guard in WWII.

and I know a few, though none in town these days. I wonder how many Pittsburghers are alumni of any of the Merchant Marine academies.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

No reason

No reason... but CNN International had a piece the other day with a reporter visiting Salalah, Oman. Just a picture I once took myself near downtown Salalah. I swear the goats were stopped at the sign before looking over at me.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

what isn't news

There was a time when steel industry news would actually make it into the paper here. The fact that it does not is probably the single biggest factoid describing the economic change in the region over the last 25 years. Via the UK's Telegraph one learns there is a simmering trade war in steel about to erupt between the EU and China. It's just an artifact of the fundamental issue that the global steel industry is facing a decline every bit as severe as what Pittsburgh faced in the 1980's, probably worse. Just imagine if the region still relied on steel jobs in the same way it did in the past.


Reminds me of the most telling story on the politics of trade locally . Some remember early in the decade there was a push in the US to impose steel tariffs on EU Steel. Unsurprising was that there was pushback from the EU in the form of countervailing tariffs that were to be implemented. I forget how far this all got, but what few people noticed was what those countervailing tariffs were and how they were focused on Pittsburgh. Clearly the international trade wonks understood this all to be a political issue here. So they logically sought out products to put tariffs on that would hurt the regions that were benefiting from the steel tariffs in the first place. Among the products they focused on initially were "nuclear power plant parts" which just had to have been put there to try and get at Western PA which has a concentration in the industry. Yet few here noticed, which pretty much obviated their core political purpose. It being just inconceivable to anyone here that steel was not a big economic generator and who cared a few years ago about the nuclear industry. But it also had pushback on the other side of the pond as well. Back then, the Westinghouse Nuclear folks were owned by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNLF) and the Brits pointed out that the EU's countervailing tariffs on those items were in the end just hurting them. So in the end I think it all went nowhere.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Worthy of international mention even.... City of Pittsburgh Pensions

From an anonymous commenter here.. A Financial Times article I should have caught mentions Pittsburgh among the worst examples of underfunded pension systems:

Double blow for US pensions as values crash. Deborah Brewster. April 7, 2009.

It's a short article, yet it's a bit scary if you deconstruct it. Pittsburgh is listed among the single most problematic cities because its pensions are nominally measured at under 50% required funding. I actually think that if it were available the latest data would show the city's pensions systems collectively are half of that even, under 25% at best. The worst funded part of Pittsburgh's pension system is the pension fund for the Police Bureau which must be getting close to single digits in its funding ratio.

Remember I said 'nominal'. Take this section in the article.
Most experts believe that the situation is even worse than these official funding figures suggest, because of the way the funds calculate returns and liabilities. Almost all funds base their funding levels on an assumption of an annual return of 8 per cent, but in the decade to 2004 the average return was only 6.5 per cent. (emphasis added)

Take that to heart when you hear what is going on in the city. For the longest time they didn't just assume a future 8% return, but 8.75%. The city has actually be touting recently that they have made a big advance by lowering the future return assumption to 8%, which is the number often criticized as being too high for the long run... too high especially when you consider that the portfolio ought to be well diversified and not just include equities, but also safer bond investments as well which would likely dilute potential returns. Bonds that are paying some historically low levels in themselves.

For the financial wonks out there... there is something else rarely mentioned except in the footnotes of financial statements. With inflation rates low and getting lower in the last year, I think most pension actuaries are going to have to start lowering their discount rate assumptions going into the long run future which will have a real impact pushing up the NPV of future pension liabilities.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

one more hotel down

Less of a mystery... one more hotel project down: Oakland hotel, office development on hold. It's a bit curious since the Pitt News reported on this project last week as being behind schedule but still going forward. What I don't get though is that this project services Oakland which I think would be one of the notional hotels that would actually move forward. The Oakland institutions being about as near a lock on future demand as you can get these days. It certainly seems a lot better bet than some of the hotel projects that thus far are still on the books.

Might not be a net loss though, there is a complementary story that another idled hotel project has restarted. Someone out there has a complete tracking of these hotel projects. I'd be curious what the full picture looks like right now.

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darn baseball stats

Where's statsgeek when you need him?

The 2009 Major League Baseball Fan Cost Index is out with lots of fodder for someone out there. Just a quick comparison with the 2002 report is interesting. Back then the Pirates were above the league average in this cost metric and average ticket prices were $20.52. For 2009 they are 2nd to the cheapest in the index number and average ticket prices are $15.39. I'm too lazy to calculate this, but are the Pirates the team with the largest decrease in ticket prices over that time? Factor in inflation, either the overall level of the higher inflation in team salaries, and that is quite a drop in price.

Not the same kind of stats I know..... but I still think someone ought to register bringbackstatsgeek.com to entice Brian O. out of his pseudo-retirement.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Pittsburgh past... Pittsburgh future.

NYT reports that Ben Chinitz passed away.

Many have read me here or in person talk about Ben's work on regional economics, in particular the Pittsburgh economy. Even though much of his work was dated to the 50's and 60's much of it is as relevant today as it was back then. It is remarkable how so many folks keep trying to figure out the answers to things that folks like Ben and his colleagues provided clear perspectives on long ago... including many issues that we still grapple with today. Sometimes you have to stop reinventing the wheel and trust the answers you have.

If you want an example of what I am talking about. Read Ben's perspective on entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh, or lack thereof from just about a half century ago:Contrasts in Agglomeration: New York and Pittsburgh. American Economic Review. Papers and Proceedings,Vol. 51, 1961, pp. 279-289.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

on those Port Authority changes coming down the road

If someone really disputes this I would be surprised... but it seems clear to me that the Port Authority has signalled its intention to decrease the number of stops it services when it revamps its routing. I know full well some out there think that fewer stops is somehow analogous to 'efficiency'. Might be a good thing for some riders, but certainly a bad thing for a lot of transit riders in Pittsburgh. Thus the 'efficiency' term is being misused at the very least. 'Efficient' and 'cheap' are not synonyms.

Nonetheless, if anyone thinks it's a good thing here there is a great little bit of research just out that documents the obvious that distance from a transit stop is highly correlated with the propensity of elderly to use public transit.

See: Access to Public Transit and Its Influence on Ridership for Older Adults in Two U.S. Cities by Daniel Baldwin Hess, Journal of Transport and Land Use.

Remember... we might be getting younger, but at the end of the day Allegheny County remains one of the oldest counties in the nation... certainly one one of the oldest large counties in the US. In fact I would speculate that the Port Authority serves the single oldest ridership of any major transit system in the nation by large measure. Keep that in mind when thinking about the 'efficiency' changes that will be proposed.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

seeking words

It seems pretentious to even try and comment on the news from Stanton Heights. How small is Pittsburgh? I am almost sure Paul Sciullo was born when his family and mine lived literally right next to each other in Bloomfield long ago. I also once lived blocks away from the scene and without knowledge of what had happened earlier drove within a half dozen blocks later on Saturday morning.

It is a simple reminder that being a police officer is not just another occupation. While it’s not the only dangerous occupation out there, few jobs require facing these situations each and every day. From the news accounts this was an unfortunately routine call to a domestic dispute, one that I bet happens dozens of times a day if not more just within the city. That any routine incident can end like this is something the police live with every hour. I can’t help but recall what happened to my very good friend from high school, and former Pittsburgh Police Officer, John Wilbur. His even more routine traffic stop 13 years ago ended only after he was dragged down Fifth Avenue at high speed, hand caught in the door jamb of a fleeing suspect’s car while his foot was all but gnawed off by the pavement. Many know the story. The circumstances today are even more frightful. That any window could have a fully automatic AK47 sticking out of it puts every cop out there in an indefensible position. Without diminishing their own dedication, a squad of infantry typically goes into combat with layers of personal protective equipment, pre-arranged backup and mutual support at the ready. Beat cops spend their days infinitely more vulnerable. Consider that with only three deaths on Saturday, in a total force of 800 the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police had a much higher proportion of its personnel killed in action than the US military suffered last year despite prosecuting two wars against armed and dangerous adversaries.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Biggest Blow to Local Steel Industry in More Than a Decade

Dateline Steubenville is this yesterday: Biggest Blow To Local Steel Industry In More Than A Decade.

Still amazes me that lots of local folks do not considerSteubenville 'local' despite it being as close to Downtown Pittsburgh as most of every suburban county in the MSA.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

more of what goes up......

Remember when I was amazed at seeing the Schlumberger thumper trucks in the middle of Pennsylvania.... well... like the chart of coal prices, all such things have their day. CNN has a story from Bradford, PA on the new Pennsylvania energy bust.

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Same old real estate story

Mostly the same story, but the PMI index measuring the risk of real estate prices declining in the coming year is out for the 4th quarter of 2008. Again Pittsburgh does well, but with a twist. Now with oil-inflated Houston doing a tad bit worse than previously, Pittsburgh is now showing up absolutely last on the list, meaning the local real estate market is the least risky among all the areas they are looking at. See the full report here. I have to admit I have not looked into the benchmarking on CNN earlier in the week to see if it comes from the same source.

Some metrics like this you really wonder if they mean so much.... could prices decline here? sure, and who really knows what the coming year will bring given all that is going on. But my real estate friends assure me that this index is actually used by mortgage underwriters which means it has a real on the ground impact in regional real estate markets. I am not sure if there is any research on this out there, but if this report does influence financing then its accuracy is a bit endogenous... Oh.. forget that, it's just a good thing... at least it's better than if it said we were at a high risk of local real estate prices declining.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

What goes up

Days when I wonder whether there will be anything to comment on always wind up with something pretty big. Big and bad as local economic news goes is US Steel's announcement that it is deferring its planned $billion or so investment at the Clairton Coke Works.

Why? The answer is buried in what has happened to Pittsburgh Seam coal prices over the last year:


$/ton, Pittsburgh Seam Coal prices



I'd still like to hear from anyone who know anything at all about a postcard I received last month or so on a public meeting in Lawrenceville where some company was going to talk about gas rights on local properties.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Jero watch

I do need to read more. Again from the NS peanut gallery before I caught it is the latest news on Jero playing at the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Read the WashPo from over the weekend: Festival Feature: A Japanese Idol From Pittsburgh.


Jero's still a guy getting more media elsewhere than here.. even though his description almost always has that 'from Pittsburgh' tucked in there. Now if he were instead a famous cupcake baker... then he would be generating some serious news.


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Yet another real estate metric/benchmarking exercise..... See Money Magazine's projections of real estate prices across metros from now through March of 2010. Their Pittsburgh profile is one of just a few on the positive side at +0.8%. Like all things FWIW.

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Still a cupcake free zone

Down hard with a cold or something which diminishes what little creative gene I have. So for April Fools Day I will reprieve the link to Cupcake Econometrics 101 from a couple years ago. I will still occasionally hear from someone thinking that was literally serious. I will point out that every factoid I referenced was absolutely accurate, as were the stylized graphics that went with the piece. Yes, the government tracks regional differences in the consumption of baked goods. It is a bit interesting that the media obsession on the cupcake phenomenon seems to have dissipated somewhat. What that means?? I dunno, but I may need to try and update my compilation of regional benchmarking of the number of bakeries per capita.

addendum... I didn't catch this myself but a loyal NS reader showed me what passes for The Economist's version of an April Fool's Day news item: The Economist Group expands. Explore a clickable map of The Economist's new theme park.

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