Friday, July 31, 2009

Iron City Debt

Man I'm cynical at this point. On one level there will be comments all around on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's meeting today which will address the unpaid water bills of Iron City. It was a curious story when it started. (ref: Iron City without the City).

But what I was thinking is that this is all just diverting attention from the bigger issue down there. But then there is this which looks like came out late Wednesday. I sometimes wonder what is up when I see a rating agency issue a report since it sometimes indicates financing activity is imminent. I have no idea if that applies in this case. An issue unto itself and I'm out of this business, but it sure seems to me that the bond rating biz has become a bit like the wild wild west in the last decade.

Looking into the future. If Walko gets his judgeship in the fall, who is going to become the PWSA chairman? Normally things like a water authority board would be a quiet place, but given the immense water and sewer infrastructure problems in the region it is a job that will have a real impact on economic development in the county going into the future.

and just to jog everyone's memory. This is one of those things that made a blip of news here and was then forgotten about as best I can tell. But remember a few months ago it was learned that JP Morgan was being being looked at by the SEC over bond deals* in Alabama (where the Jefferson County, AL Sewer Authority is essentially in bankruptcy proceedings) similar to what they structured for the PWSA and which now have them in a bind.

* See JP Morgan's quarterly SEC filing. (specifically the section near the bottom subtitled "Part II Other Information")

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Salary-less Pirates

In light of the culling of the Pirates roster I will just repost a link to the great Ben Fry Salary vs. Performance graphic. I doubt it reflects all the current machinations in the salary numbers.. and given that they seem to be paying teams to take players it may not be lowering their salary number this year much anyway. But hey, we are beating Cleveland's record right now and they had a salary almost twice as high as ours. I am sure someone will call that great 'efficiency'.


I am just wondering..... if we are moving downward from 4th from the bottom... then will next year's Pirates be the lowest salaried team in MLB?

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Detroit or Pittsburgh?

CNN has a story looking at the situation in Detroit where unemployment is up to 17%. It really is bad and does not look to be stabilizing anytime soon.

Even before the bottom really fell out from under Detroit there was a pretty good news story in the Detroit Free Press contrasting our situation with theirs: Different City, Similar Story. I have mentioned in the past some speculation on my part.. but I suspect that that article was a seed that lead to at least some of the positive PR the region had received in the last year. It's also interesting to realize that article was from early 2008 when things were nowhere near as bad as they are now for Detroit. How different are the two regions? At the county level I have my new google powered Rust Belt Watch. As of when I type the June number has not been updated as yet. The raw unemployment number for Wayne county in June is coming in at 18.5%.

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unemployment again

One follow-up to the news Monday on the (fractional) uptick in the local unemployment rate. The story that still does not seem to want to resonate is what is happening to the unemployment rate within the region. You can read the states PR and see that there was an uptick in the unemployment rate for City of Pittsburgh residents from 6.9 to 7.2% for May and June respectively. For an urban core are that still remains pretty remarkable. The comparable unemployment rate number for the City of Detroit is up to 28.2% for June, or just under 4 times what is is for Pittsburgh. It's basically a debilitating number no matter how you look at it. I have mentioned in the past that Beaver County locally peaked at 28% unemployment in the early 1980's. But I don't think anyone has written much on the city-angle or other intra-regional aspects to all of this.

The highest unemployment rates in the region are going back to the regions often hardest hit during periods of either boom or bust. Both Fayette and Armstrong Counties are pushing close to 10% unemployment.

and speaking of employment in the city proper... I would love to hear if anyone has any anecdotal insights into whether the imminent casino opening is having an impact locally. By that I don't just mean whether local folks are getting some of the jobs, but I was wondering if other local firms have noticed an impact on their hiring based on the hiring the casino has been doing of late.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unemployment

News is that the local unemployment rate is up a tenth of a percentage point to 7.6%. The "worst in 23 years" is the quote. True enough although we are talking a change that is awfully close to rounding error over the previous month*. As I said before, it remains 1.9 percentage points below the national unemployment rate, a statistic that can't be matched since the mid 1970's. Does not mean that higher unemployment rate of late is good, but a lot of things (especially things like migration) are dependend on how we are doing relative to places we usually trade population with more than the absolute levels.

What is scary is that the latest unemployment rate for Detroit is that it jumped more than 2 percentage points over the previous month and is now just over 17%!! That is now well over double our local unemployment rate and rapidly approaching the highest calculated unemployment rate here during the worst of the early 1980's.

Things to look for in coming months. July data will have beginning palpable impacts of casino employment. I also want us to get credit for all the G20 employment. Think about it. Those thousands of folks visiting will all be employed, though they won't count on our labor force metrics... But will there be local employment impacts in the near term from the G20 related activity?

* Technically the unemployment rate between May and June here went from 7.497% to 7.559%. But the data isn't really precise enough to report that many significant digits. But I'm serious. I bet that if the survey caught one more person working last month the change would go away in the reporting.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

The missing female voter politician

The PG passed on some factoids from a state commission about how women in Pennsylvania actually make up more of the vote than men. 54% was the factoid. It's not anything surprising. In fact I am pretty sure that percentage would be even higher (as in more skewed toward women) for most local elections here. The companion facts all point out the low female participation among elected offices in the state; something that has been documented for a long time as well.

But are they facts that speak for themselves? Depends what you think they are saying. I am pretty sure in this case the answer is no. I am sure a lot of folks jump to the conclusion that women are just that more politically active than men. Of course that just isn’t the thing driving that 54% number. I think I’ve beaten to death the fact that we are a very old voting demographic. (my details are here, here, and here just to begin with )Far older than the overall population demographic would imply. Now add in the fact that women live longer than men. Put it together and what do you get, that a lot more of the people making it to vote happen to be women. Those supervoters in particular are going to be a female demographic. There just are more females than men among the folks far more likely to vote. What that 54% does NOT mean is that if you pick an average person of a given age out there that the probability a woman votes is necessarily different from the voting bahavior of comparable men.

While I have some longer parsing of the local electorate, you really can look at in much simpler terms that get you to the 80% solution. The center of gravity in most local elections is clearly women over age 60. Strong support in that one group and very little else matters.

Then there is the further implication of the factoid. Women are the ones voting, but women are not in public office. One might think that the entire issue is women not being able to get elected. Of course that appears to not be the case around here. Years ago I had some long comments on the decision by one-term state rep Lisa Bennington to not seek a 2nd term. That was after defeating long time incumbent Frank Pistella which then had implications for female representation in the state general assembly. More recently I am sure each had very solid reasons for their decisions, it remains amazingly rare events for politicians to walk away from office voluntarily, let alone with no scandal involved. To have two such local cases recently is almost impossible statistically. Yet in both cases it was the female candidate who won contested elections. In Bennington’s case a race against a fairly well liked long term incumbent, says it is not entirely a bias against women that is the issue.

No time to recompile it right now, but the pie chart I did breaking out voters in the spring primary by age would be an even stranger result if I did it just for women. Strange as in skewed even more toward older voters if that is even possible. I said 5 times as many voters age 60 cast a ballot in the spring primary compared to the voters under 30. I will lay good odds that the same ratio would be more like 10 to 1 if calculated just for women. Think about that just a bit.

But here is one thing. From the spring primary in the city, the ratio of female voters to male voters among the actual ballots cast, by age, looks like this:



and I have to say I have no idea what is going on with more men among the youngest voters. Never thought about that much and I will try and see what is causing that number and make sure it's correct. I was reading a book from a decade ago titled NonVoters, but I don't remember any discussion about that in particular. Anyone know what is causing that? or why it may be appearing that way in the data.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

(Almost) Most Literate Cities

Just caught this... but here is a metric someone comes up with annually of the most literate cities in the nation. We had been in the top 10 in past years, but for 2008 we dropped to 11.

Deconstructing that I wonder what is driving Pittsburgh's still relatively high ranking. Part of it goes to what I discussed about how we really are one of the most educated places in the nation when you account for age of the population. At the same time, that ranking seems to take into account things like newspaper circulation which I have to believe is pushed up here by the older age demographic. Whether that means we are more literate, or just more dependent on ink I wonder.

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as goes Buffalo......

Rustwire has a post and some links on developments, or lack of developments I suppose, affecting local government and regionalism in Buffalo.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

WSJ on G20 in Pittsburgh

I have to make an index of these. The Wall Street Journal has it's current round of G20 coverage today:

Pittsburgh Scrubs Up for Visit From the G-20
by Kris Maher - July 25, 2009

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Friday, July 24, 2009

follow the beer

Can't not mention the piece by the PG's Chief Alcohol Correspondent on the diaspora effect on the future of Iron City Beer. I have to think that piece was held to coincide with the other news item today that IC production in Lawrenceville is now kaput. I still wonder... does Straub's claim the mantle of top local beer.

I've had some fun conversations over the years with folks who have different business ideas to capitalize on the vast Pittsburgh diaspora. Of course, on anything diaspora related you have to go check out Jim R's: Burgh Diaspora blog. It changes some over time, but the overall trends are pretty consistent... if you want to see my data on where Pittsburgher's move to you can see the or you can take a look at this report or the far better graphics in this Next Page piece based on same.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jobs of the future (and the past)

Bigger story than just Pittsburgh, but the Council of Economic Advisers has recently put out a report on: Jobs of the Future. Worth a read.

Models or not, predicting the occupations with the biggest growth in the future is tough to do.. and that is true for the nation as a whole, let alone for specific regions.

What occupation has seen the biggest percentage decline in Pittsburgh over the last 30 years or so. I don't have any precise numbers with me right now, but it's not a steel related occupation I bet. One of the largest loss of jobs has been in the number of local telephone operators*. I'm serious. Why? It's not just the demise of the flesh and blood telephone operator, but the very nature of the business. Pittsburgh was once home of one of AT&T's main International phone operations centers. That big building across from the Steel Building used to house a whole cluster of international telephone operators... People used to need a lot more assistance in placing international calls than they do now. I don't know if there are any such international operators around here any more, but there certainly are not the numbers there used to be.

I just remember using the USA direct service from overseas that AT&T had. It was always funny getting an operator who was in Pittsburgh. Made for fun, if brief, conversations on what was going on at home.

Which is just an excuse to link to this YouTube video I first mentioned long ago. If you think programming your digital converter box was hard, this was probably a stranger transition for those who had to learn how to use a rotary dial phone:



Anyone know of any news story from back then about the phone operators who saw their jobs being threatened by the introduction of the rotary dial?


* Actually I suspect the occupation with biggest percentage decline is something more like Lead Type Caster, although I suspect that is true almost everywhere. My father was actually once a letterpress printer and I know small printers could once get custom lead type from shops in town. I have to believe that whole business is gone completely, but would be curious to know if I am wrong.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Seattle or Pittsburgh?

Can't explain it... but my news filters are catching a lot of economic angst from Seattle..

Seattle Times is going so far as to run a picture of protests in Pittsburgh during the recession of 1983. That's way up there on the pessimist scale for them, or anyone.

One blogger is asking whether Seattle will follow the path of Pittsburgh or Detroit? The choice isn't as interesting as who is asking.....

and a former PG reporter has some brief comments on angst up there over Boeing's purchase of a plant in South Carolina.

I don't think they are close to the emotions that lead in part to putting up the billboard asking: Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?... but what's it mean?

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Reading list

Sorry there is no public link for this, but I figure a few folks out there may be interested in it enough to look it up. Something worth reading recently published that ties together debates over government consolidation, economic development, the environment and sprawl in Southwestern Pennsylvania is this:

The Spatially Varying Relationship Between Local Land-Use Policies and Urban Growth: A Geographically Weighted Regression Analysis . by Robert Hanham , Richard J. Hoch and J. Scott Spiker

Chapter of Geotechnologies and the Environment Volume 1

Abstract:

This chapter examines the geography of urban growth and public policy. The chapter uses geographically weighted regression to investigate observed urbanization and sprawl across southwest Pennsylvania. Using Landsat data, the chapter focuses on observed land use change and the relationship, if any, between change and land use policy. This research shows that the spatial fragmentation of local land-use policy has a variable impact on observed land-use from non-forested open space to an urban built environment.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

B-17 in the Burgh - then and now

A WWII era B17 flew into Pittsburgh last week.

Meet the local pilot who flew the first B-17 to land in Pittsburgh



via an old post on: http://pittsburgheldersguild.blogspot.com/

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Unsung Local Movies

There is a relatively new blog out there: Pittsburgh Flicks, all about movies set in Pittsburgh. I think there is something aberrant in the web site code there, it keeps giving me various errors. Maybe someone can crowdsource some tech support for them, or help me I suppose if nobody else is having similar problems.

They have a list there of locally shot movies... I wonder how complete that list is. It does not have Achilles Love. (later renamed and rereleased as Road to a Greek Wedding). Any others that might be missing?

How do I know that movie was shot here? Why have I actually seen it? I swear Pittsburgh stuff just finds me, I can't quite explain it. Years ago I literally was in the Middle East and there was a satellite channel that just ran American movies. I somehow caught a few minutes of this movie that was unfamiliar and it occurred to me that the scenes were shot in Pittsburgh. That there was a movie set in Pittsburgh that I had not heard of seemed a bit incredulous to me so I kept watching. I wasn't sure it was set in Pittsburgh until I finally saw a friend from high school in the cast. I still waited until I saw the credits which confirmed it. Many have not heard of it, but it was a real commercial release with a NY Times movie review even. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding with a cookie table. Well, not really but maybe that will get you to have netflix send it to you.

I'll add one more never mentioned, although it was a made for TV movie and may not count... but I remember seeing Alone in a Neon Jungle. Something about Suzanne Pleshette playing a local police commander, but I more remember she had this Mount Washington apartment in the movie which gave some iconic Pittsburgh backgrounds for some scenes.. probably the only reason I remember it.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Someone likes the Burgh's milieu

Someone in St. Louis really likes Pittsburgh.

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Counting on you

News that the city and county have put together a complete count committee for the 2010 Census which is just around the corner. Boring stuff eh?

In 1990, Allegheny County was estimated by the census to be undercounted by a tad more than 3,000 people. May not seem a lot, but it was mostly an undercount of 8% of all African Americans in the county. The white population in the county was estimated to be slightly overcounted.

After the 2000 Census, I think there was a political tussle and the Census didn't report their undercount numbers by county, but something called the Census Monitoring Board came up with estimates of the undercount That commission estimated that Allegheny County was undercounted by around 5,700 folks. It also estimated that the Allegheny County alone lost $116 million between state and federal programs due to that undercount.

So boring but costly.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

'young voter' still an oxymoron

Yeah, I know... broken record. Unfortunately just documenting the obvious again. Here is the age distribution of voters who showed up for the Democratic primary in the City of Pittsburgh in May. It's really only interesting considering this was the first major election following the fall presidential election. All the talk of a new paradigm of voter participation, particularly voter participation by youth.... you don't see much evidence of that here. This figure looks remarkably as it did in the past.


You can parse some rather pathological factoids out of that. There were 20% more voters age 80 and above than there were voters under 30.. not under 20, under 30. For every voter under 30 there were more than 5 voters over age 60.

The reasons are pretty straightforward. It's not just that we are an old region; a few other things contribute. Lack of in-migration over a long time means that the older folks who are here have been here for a relatively long time. Thus older residents here are far more likely to be voting here compared to places that have older folks who have recently arrived such as is the case for most retirement destinations. Then there is the fact that a disproportionate part of the city's young adults population is made up of students. Students are transient and busy and thus are only occasionally big voters. Add in that the date of the spring primary is usually after many local colleges and universities have graduated. It makes a big difference. Finally, the very fact that primary elections are usually the determinative election matters as well. Younger voters may make it out to general elections, especially during presidential cycles, but off-year primaries only exacerbates the age skewing.. It must add up to one of the oldest age demographics of voters in the nation for a major city or county. I'm sure there are small places that have even more extreme concentrations of elderly voters.

This is a bit more interesting, even if tells the same story. This is the conditional probability that a voter cast a ballot in the spring primary given that they voted in the fall general, again by age. This is just for folks registered here in both cycles and does not account for those who moved out since the fall.


Yes that is saying that even for the folks who actually voted in the fall, but are under say 25 or so... the probability that they voted in the spring primary here is under 10%. That's for folks who voted just a few months earlier. The actual percentage of folks in those age groups who voted overall is an even lower percentage. Various caveats to making that. If you really need to know let me know, but the big picture is pretty clear.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

NYT on why Pittsburgh?

NYT has its version of the 'why Pittsburgh?' story: City of Steel (and Other Stuff) to Get Its Turn on the World Economic Stage

*****

but something else. Here is a Craigslist ad asking $5K for rental of an apartment 2 blocks from the convention center just during the G20 conference. Makes sense that this type of thing would pop up. Will be interesting to see how others try to capitalize on the G20 coming to town. I bet more than a few ideas will be creative.

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Weekend Seinfeld post

I have posted this before, but an AgentSka post reminded me of it recently. Not for any reason other than this is still the funniest Youtube posted video I have ever seen.


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Friday, July 17, 2009

down up down up

Half empty, half full... News accounts say the latest realstats data says real estate sales are down a lot, prices down some, but still the biggest number to parse is that foreclosures are down. Down by just a bit? For the 2nd quarter foreclosures are down 20% over the previous quarter. I think that makes it down like a third or more from a comparable 2nd quarter of 2008. Back then the news was all about the escalation in foreclosures locally. Isn't the unexpected turnaround in that data the bigger story by far?


*****


State unemployment rate is unchanged. My honest answer to almost all questions about the "Pennsylvania economy" is that there isn't really a Pennsylvania economy. A number of different regions make up PA, regions that really are not bound together except by some artificial boundaries set long ago. As an economic entity Pennsylvania probably never existed from its inception. The linkages say between Pittsburgh and the growing Northeast part of the state have to pale with our connections to West Virginia and Ohio. Nonetheless, artifacts of history or not, the monthly unemployment rate for Pennsylvania came out yesterday.

But FWIW, here is something I normally do for the region. This is the relative picture of how Pennsylvania and US unemployment rates have compared over the last 3 decades:





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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Calling their bluff

I want to play poker with these folks... I think this is called bluffing. I can see the end game now: city pays Lamar some fraction of that million to get them to finish the billboard and get them off the hook for the entire amount. Otherwise I figure that if they try to use it for some other commercial purpose, or leased to another billboard firm (is there any other billboard firm around?)... then Lamar could have other legal recourse as well I am just guessing. Maybe a non-profit use of the device would be ok?

Wait, I have it. Forget the live streaming on the Internet. City council live on the big screen!

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Please send check forthwith....

I really thought today I'd have to pull something from the stack for whenI have nothing else to put up. I thought this was awfully understated news: Casino given week to settle arena funding dispute. (I didn't catch at the time, but the Trib had a piece on this dispute last week). Remember all the ink over the whole casino/arena payment issue when the casino license process was working its way to a conclusion. Post-arena construction, or maybe it's post Stanley Cup it almost does not make it to print.

I thought I had a copy of that agreement between I guess it was Barden and the SEA or the state over the promised payments, but maybe not. I do have a copy of the SEA Bond at issue. The big thing that I still find curious was the debate that flared up briefly over the state's ambiguous status guaranteeing this bond. It wasn't clear to me at least at the time, but it turns out it the state is backstoping the payments. But then why did the bond need bond insurance. Oh, nevermind.

Looks like it could get ugly and headed to court. Not much middle ground. $7.5 million now or in 3 years looks like the issue. I am unclear if the dispute extends to the other payments the casino is expected to make such as to the city, county, and other groups. You would wonder how the SEA is getting by without these payments, but they have the proceeds of the bond net of what has been spent thus far on construction so I presume it's not a cash issue for the time being.

****

But some general public finance notes:

Talk is escalating of a potential chapter 9 bankruptcy for the Detroit Public School system which would be historic I think. Not sure when the last large school system went bankrupt.

But also there is a new one. There has been plenty of coverage of the financial miasma at the Jefferson County (Alabama) Sewer system.. but it looks like the actual Jefferson County government down there is heading toward bankruptcy as well.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How low can USAirways employment go?

So here is a headline running now: "US Airways to lay off 600, but none in Pittsburgh".

I first wondered.. does US Airways have 600 employees in Pittsburgh in total. The article says they are at around 2,100 locally. Remember this was once the largest private employer in the region depending on what you count. A great headline circa 2000: Jobs, flights in Pittsburgh protected in US Airways sale .

Think about that. The focus of most all job growth efforts immediately following the collapse of steel employment was all centered around the USAir hub operation at the airport. And for the most part all of that is entirely defunct.

Put this in context of the whole Pittsburgh story of late, resilience and restructuring and all of that. It's not just that steel went away and we rebuilt. We dug the hole deeper at some points. Lots to overcome between the early 80's and now.

But here is the real question. There was a time when everyone argued that the availability of flights was by far the most important competitive factor for the region. So now we have a recent history that goes almost the opposite. As flights from Pittsburgh have collapsed, the Pittsburgh story has gotten a whole lot brighter. I DO NOT imply any causality like that for the record. But what was equally baseless was the causality many just assumed went the other way.

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when rankings really matter

We are low on the esoteric quota here of late... This ought to make up for it.

I fully admit I do my fair share of benchmarking. You can learn a lot from ranking things, but a lot of times the interpretation can be overblown. Here is a case where rankings may cost real $$. I am reading in Bond Buyer that Congressman Doyle is fighting some provision on how the 'top 100' school districts are counted. Who cares eh?

Turns out that part of the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) is a bond program for school districts called the QSCB (Qualified School Construction Bond) program. The program, of which I knew little until reading this, has 40% of it's spending limited to the 100 largest school districts. The remainder goes to states. Apparently the City of Pittsburgh School District is close to being ranked literally number 100.

So close that if school districts in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Hawaii are included, the city school district does not come in as one of the top 100 and thus becomes ineligible for these bonds. The congressman is opposed to those school districts being ranked against the Pittsburgh School District. The argument is that for those school districts are essentially state-wide districts and states receive money separately via this program. That's all I know, but seems to be a rare case where the details of the counting really really matter. Any school finance beat reporters out there?

Now to play with numbers though. If the largest school district in the county/region is barely in the top 100 school districts nationally... what does that say about the comparative level of school district fragmentation here?

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pittsburgh to Paris

Trib recently had a fun comprehensive look at the ties that bind us to France. Funny no mention of the erstwhile mayoral candidacy of Josh Wander whose main claim to fame was his past campaign to send the Statue of Liberty back to Mr. Bartholdi's descendants. Imagine the story line that might have played out in the media if he had been on the ballot when Mr. Sarkozy arrived here. Nonetheless today is Bastille Day.

Anyway. Was just in France. I've been posting about the market for the new Pittsburgh to Paris flight. So here is some primary (albeit anecdotal) research: Pittsburgh to Paris flight was overbooked. Return flight about 90% filled. Good for peak summer season this time of year. Going over I could identify one group that looked like it might be one of those groups going out of their way to buy tickets on the flight to help prop up sales. The issue may come down to how demand holds up during the shoulder and off-seasons. A decent showing for now, but the prices were remarkably cheap for peak travel season.

As for Paris. Louve, Orsay, Rodan..... Bah. For some of us there is the Paris Sewer Tour. I have to say that I am not quite sure I would feel safe on a similar tour sponsored by the PWSA. Who knows what is underground here? For those who saw Saving Private Ryan. This is really what Dog Green looks like today. Hard to believe. and at the D-Day museum what do I find myself staring within 5 minutes of looking around? A display case with a bottle of Fort Pitt Beer.

No sign of Jerry Lewis in the French popular culture, but French TV had an inordinate amount of dubbed Starsky and Hutch reruns. Not as bad as all the Arnold films which are big hits around the world, but you have to wonder what people think of US culture given what we normally 'export'.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Beyond the angst - How goes Pittsburgh?

There have been some great comments here of late. One post last week had a brief discussion of Edmund Burke as metaphor for Pittsburgh. Whether one agrees or not I'd love for mayoral debates or city council sessions to be quoting political philosophers. Generally though, on the general theme of how Pittsburgh is doing comments here and everywhere seem to boil down pretty quickly to folks who think its all great or all horrible around here... especially with regards to the city. Is it ever that simple?

Some angst of late over latest population numbers for the city of Pittsburgh is a case in point. Continued decline part of vast failure or slower decline moving out from a steel-inspired 'lost decade' or two? Half full? Half empty? Both? Neither? The city clearly has issues. Pensions=bad... worse than bad... denial everywhere.. taxes high... going to go higher it seems to me. bad bad bad. Population ever lower.. at the very least not good at this point.

Depressed yet? Here is the thing. A little bit of news in passing last week was that Downtown office vacancy rate actually went down. So global economic meltdown... historic recession... and dire dire talk about the commercial real estate market everywhere and the Downtown real estate market is doing better? And that is despite ongoing construction adding to supply. It's not just Downtown. The Oakland vacancy rate can only be measured as an imaginary number. That is even as every available bit of space has office space squeezed into it. Remember Duranti's? Now some medical offices. I really want to know how the former patrons there are getting meals. Oakland has had some serious construction in recent years with new biomedical towers, new RAND building and even with Children's now gone of late. I am sure the parcel on which I work is destined to be biomedical tower 10 or 12 or whatever we are up to at this point.

OK.. I really am going somewhere. Here is the factoid of note in all of this. Read my pension rants if you think I have any reason to shade the positive, but here is something to think about. In 1960 the number of jobs located in the City of Pittsburgh was just about 300K. Today the number of jobs located in the City of Pittsburgh is for all practical purposes identical at 300K. We are approaching a fairly remarkable metric for a major city, but we may soon have more people working in the city daily than living here.

So for all who say the city is a failure and everyone is leaving. That may be true for residents, but you can't begin to say that for jobs. Consider the loss of population from the city and realize that roughly 70% of all jobs in the region are there providing goods and services to the population here. What does that mean for the competitiveness of the city as a place to work? Clearly a lot of jobs supporting the residential population moved out to the suburbs along with the population movement. Yet the city has the same number of jobs in total. It must have grown in those jobs that are not merely providing retail and services to the local population but are supporting a larger clientele regionally or beyond. In other words it has become more competitive as a place to work. In normal circumstances that would be amazing. Add in all the bad things that have happened here and its something else altogether.


What's it mean? Lots of things, but for now it's just the point that there isn't any one answer as many want to ascribe for everything. For everyone who says that X or Y (fill in your policy of choice) is going to force businesses to flee the city for the suburbs you have to think about how that argument has gone over the last 50 years. Things like high parking taxes or occupation taxes or fill in the blank have not resulted in jobs leaving the city. Could there be a counterfactual loss of even more jobs that could have been located here if things were different? Maybe, but you have to ask yourself where would those jobs go. Hard to fit more jobs in present Downtown or Oakland. Building up is always a possibility. Both Downtown and Oakland are relatively pretty vertical places already.


OK... enough I guess. The 'why' to explain all of that I can't begin to answer. Why has Pittsburgh as a city gained competitiveness as a place to work where most comparable old center cities have gone the other way ravaged by suburbanization, edge cities and. More people commute out of Detroit everyday for work than commute in.. think about that a bit. Transportation obviously has a big part of that. No real ring road and the edge cities they inspire, but think about transit and the radial Port Authority routes some like to (Searching for Mr. Squiggly) critique... for some reason Pittsburgh supports a greater center city employment concentration than most anywhere else. I find it hard to believe that the Port Authority of the past helped support that. Consider that as we continue to strip the Port Authority down to it's minimalist (i.e. cost efficient) end game.

Not ignoring the population loss. We'll get to that.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Counting Colberts

I have to say I am really disappointed in myself that I didn't catch this story myself. Used to be tested on morse code flashing light even.

But I didn't catch this from a couple weeks ago...Colbert on the Census:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Noncensus
http://www.colbertnation.com/
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pirates... what is there to say?

Didn't catch this recently, but the Onion recently reported:

Pirates want everyone in Pittsburgh to stop staring at them.

With the news of ever more trades being pushed, I am just curious how low can the Pirates' salary go. They are striving to achieve that ultimate in cost-efficiency it seems to me.

I won't say it. But maybe others can fill in other local organizations seeking similar strategies. Results are usually similar no matter the context.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Innovation-less Burgh?

Speaking of innovation in the nonprofit sector. Government is a nonprofit sector I suppose......

News that the Social Innovation Accelerator is shutting down is awfully abrupt and unexpected. A unique event, or maybe a signal of something else? The organization was founded by Tim Zak who now runs CMU's Australia campus and has an itinerant blog himself going back a few years: http://timzak.blogspot.com/ Is all a bit curious since yesterday the news was about social innovation in Pittsburgh being in the news with White House exposure.

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iBurgh*


Breathe Briem... Breathe. I almost thought this was a joke that the city wants to beat out Boston as a high tech place for digital citizenry.

Ok. I admit it, I suggested some government iPhone apps. Was I serious? Sure. But let's be clear. There is a long long way to go, and some easier things to do before we ought to be pushing the envelope. Maybe we should worry about putting some more basic city documents online first.

Probably a good time to answer the question nobody really tried to answer. I asked who 'this person' is. The answer is that was Smithfield. As in 'Ask Smithfield'... who was the gateway on the City of Pittsburgh's web site more than a decade ago. He was suppose to be the answer person. I don't know if they actually used the technology of the 'Ask Jeeves' web search engine some may remember, but that was the idea. Smithfield was going to be the online gateway to help you get all your city questions answered and access city data. It was window dressing at best. Let's not waste time on window dressing if it does not address the real need. The potential there that the public will be confused and think this is progress. In other words:

Do not get distracted by the bright shiny object!

Are we ahead of where we were a decade ago? In some ways yes, but in an lot of ways no which is remarkable given the tech base here and the sheer change in IT everywhere. The county put some campaign finance material is online for sure (what was that? last month?). But there is a lot more to do. Now granted some of the documents I want are not what the public would want, but are probably more important to have out there than some iPhone gimickry. Why are the only pension reports and bond prospectus available online from me?** That makes little sense. I bet the city owns a scanner somewhere. One of those summer interns could put all sorts of stuff online with no incremental cost.

This is a true story... and I will say as a disclaimer it's not reflective of anyone working on Grant Street these days to my knowledge, but I honestly once had a face to face conversation with a city official that went like this.

Me: Can I get a copy of X?

Response: We don't have money to maintain a library available for requests like that, but if you were able to provide such funding I could help you.

I am sure it was meant to be funny, but it was not meant as a joke. I didn't get the report. A very public and statutorily required report by the way. I thought the response so great that I left with a smile though. Unfortunately it's not the funniest such exchange I have ever had like that.

So I guess I could now get that same response via an iPhone. Maybe with some musical background as well. Cool.

OK.. I'm sorry. I am sure everyone is well intentioned. But eGovernment and digital citizenship is something more than this. A colleague who has since left town has done an awful lot of work in eGovernment while here and for the more academic researchers he is also the editor of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics which has a lot of articles looking at the nexus of technology and citizenship.


________________________
* What happened with iJustine by the way?

** Muni bond prospectus' used to be quite a pain to get individually. At least a lot harder than general corporate financial filings. That has recently changed. But the point is still there.

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Medicare R US

Before Medicare... the AP has a good look at the Cleveburgh economy: Eastern Ohio economy may take cues from Pa.

A really great interactive map of medicare spending in the US is online here via MSNBC.

Note that we have some of the higher spending per Medicare recipient.. and I am pretty sure because of the age and income of our population we have a lot more such patients that other similarly sized regions. Multiply those facts and thus the reason that recession or not the local health care industry is weathering the times pretty well at least thus far.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

G20 and remembering Clarke T.

Reuters covers the G20 crescendo.. and the author is blogosphere's Jonathan Barnes.

I can't not mention Jonathan's homage to the late Clarke Thomas in his post today. I was thinking of Clarke the other day because I had to look something up in the Carnegie Library's Pennsylvania Department. As I mentioned, that just happens to be where I last ran into Clarke not too long before his passing diligently researching whatever his project was at the time. May we all have the same passion for what we do.

So in deference to that I will skip the more rant-like thought I just typed up. Some things are more important. Maybe tomorrow.

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(Greater) Pittsburgh, meet your government(s)


Greater Pittsburgh, meet your government. Just for fun, I count 461 municipalities in the 7 county Pittsburgh MSA these days. Scaled to population that looks like this:


Obligatory caveats: You can click on the image get a bigger PDF version. Image made with Wordle. Names are scaled within to 2008 population estimates I gave it, but it obviously isn't proportional linearly. I actually had to scale down the City of Pittsburgh text because it was scaling it far bigger than what you see here which didn't make sense. 461 municipalities are for the current 7 county MSA definition. and I have not counted manually, but I am thinking some places are just so small relative to others that the algorithm used must have dropped them out of the graphic altogether. Is the software telling us something? Otherwise take it FWIW.

update
I think Wordle was weighting things with a quadratic. Adjusting it accordingly seems to be more cognitively consistent. Also tweaked some fo the names and things to get this. Also the full PDF version is larger now as well which makes it a bit clearer.



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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

WQEX redux

Thinking some about QUBE, then seeing the news about funding issues at WQED you have to wonder what the strategic vision is for the station that was trying to mold itself into an omnimedia brand. One thing from that news story jumped out at me. They say they "may also have to eliminate some national programs purchased separately, such as "The Lawrence Welk Show." You have to pay for the Lawrence Welk show?? I jest of course. As best I know it may be the highest rated show they air. Who gets those royalites?

But in thinking about WQED I realized I didn't know what the current state of WQEX.. or lack of state may be a better way to put it. It was a big local story for years, but has been quiescent for a bit. Just seems that the current financial miasma might spur a new look at WQED's desire to sell its underused 2nd channel... so underused that I bet many have forgotten about it, or never even knew about it in the first place at this point. I'll let wikipedia fill in the basic story fwiw.

WQED once wanted to sell the channel for $20 mil I think if they could have ever sold it a a commercial station. I doubt it's worth a fraction of that now even if they were allowed to sell it. What are the economics of the 2nd channel these days? I can't even figure out what Wikipedia is explaining about the channel broadcasting on a 'virtual' channel. I assume it's on one of my cable channels that I never look at. That must be worth something to someone out there? Anyone know what ratings the channel gets if it's even high enough to be measured? If WQED had been free to sell the channel outright, this would have been resolved years ago.


The proposed WQEX sale wound up involving the highest levels of telecommunications policy in the US. The most important FCC ruling on the issue is here. I learned years after the fact that I am quoted in there... not by name, but some of our work is directly referenced. Interesting ruling just looking at the names involved. The Powell is the son of Colin who was chaiman of the FCC at the time. The policy debates directly involved John McCain on the Senate's commerce committee between his races for president. More context and a 2002 version of the WQEX saga written up in the nation is here.


So what now for WQEX and it's parent? I have no idea. But given that WQED sold Pittsburgh Magazine last month, I have no doubt they still want to get rid of WQEX. How to do that is a question I am sure someone is pondering. With the news that the City Paper will be live streaming former WQEX talk show host Lynn Cullen on the Internet soon.... I can see it now: City Paper TV! Potter in audio, visual and printed form. The OmniPotter.

If that does not work... maybe they should show Rick Sebak documentaries 24/7.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Cleveburgh notes: Downtown Revival

Just thought this was interesting in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer today:

Cleveland's downtown revival starts at the water, port adviser says

They had to pay some management consultant come and tell them that. We had Prince Charles come to give us that advice. Granted it was 20 years ago.

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pensions and G20

Already covered in local media, but the Philly Inquirer had a piece over the weekend on the potential takeover of some municipal pension funds by the state. See:

Proposal would have state take over city pension plan. by Jeff Shields . July 4, 2009

Here is something to think about... Lots of talk about how leasing of the parking authority assets could be used to shore up the city's pension systems.. For all numbers I have heard on what the net payoff would be... give or take $200 million that is... the city's pension system would still be one of the worst funded in both the nation and across the state and would still be caught up under this plan. That amount would pretty much put the pension plan back where it was just 2 years ago. At that point the ICA at least was talking about it as: "At some point, it's impossible to catch up".

*****

and the WSJ has a blurb on the upcoming G (20 minus 12) conference that is coming up with some discussion of what it means for the G20 conference here later on. Remember, these folks are coming here for real work, not sightseeing.

*****

update: more on pensions. I just saw noticed this though it's clearly not new. An ammendment dated may 20 to the Act 47 has this little blurb in it:

changes in actuarial assumptions as further detailed below, a more current actuarial valuation would almost certainly find the total City retiree liability to be well above $1.0 billion. With the additional principal balance on pension obligation bonds issued in 1998 to help fund retiree benefits going forward, the City’s current overall retiree liability is believed to rise well above $1.25 billion. (emphasis added)


note the use of the word above.

Hmm..... And people think I'm pessimistic. Was that $1.25 billion number bantered about in the Act 47 debates down at city council? and the city vehemently disagreed with this post of mine where I pointed out the billion dollar bonus. In fact I think the city's position is still that any talk like this is "likened .... to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater."

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more enegy burgh


Catching up on things. Over the weekend the Trib looked at the local energy economy. It may seem like a new story, but it has been obvious for some time... even before the spike in energy prices which now has a lot of folks thinking about it.

Take a look at Slate's look at the coal economy in Central and Northern Appalachia (that would be us btw): The Big Sandy. Obscure economic indicators, Part 4: Central Appalachian Coal Futures. By Daniel Gross. Posted Friday, Sept. 10, 2004, at 4:50 PM ET. Pittsburgh seam spot coal prices spiked far above where they were when that Slate article ran, but have subsequently collapsed as steel driven demand has just destroyed the demand for coking coal.

My own thoughts on seeing thumper trucks rumbling through rural Pennsylvania last year. Also CNN's look at local energy issues following the post-spike energy prices.


My own thoughts from a few years ago on Energy Burgh.


I do have one question though.. I have not looked into this systematically... but are retail biodiesel sources drying up? Also, there were a number of biodiesel refineries that were going to be big in the region. Not sure the status of all those projects at the moment.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

QUBE redux

News that the city may get cable competition at some point.

Remember: QUBE TV had city on the cutting edge in '80s. Seriously, if you still have two coax cables in your home it's because of the high bandwidth requirements of interactive TV in the city a decade before the Internet would reach the retail consumer and even before some of us were 'surfing' with Archie or Veronica*. I argue QUBE is counterintuitively the reason the city later lagged behind the latest upgrades for years because it didn't need the additional bandwidth for so long. So basically everyone leapfrogged the city until just a few years ago for things like cable Internet or even digital cable I bet.

* I'm feeling old these days. I wonder what proportion of readers here even remember life before the WWW?

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Pittsburgh facing the world

I just saw this although it says it is from April. I thought it was an ACCD production, but it says it is from the State Department. The question is, did someone get tasked to make this in anticipation of a G20 announcement in the pipeline? Whatever the reason, here is what the State Department is presenting to the world on us:

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pirates playing above their salary level

For the true statsgeeks... as in baseball stats... or just those interested in the Pirates continuing underperformance they are actually playing above their salary level.

See the latest Ben Fry Salary versus Performance infographic:

http://benfry.com/salaryper/

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Why everyone cares about Senator Byrd's health these days

For July 4th..... just for lawyers, Constitutional scholars and the few defense wonks out there

Polysign points out that The Continuity of Government Commission just issued another report on issues revolving around presidential succession. Think you know your civics about who becomes president in contingencies? Think again. There are folks worried about the odder possibilities out there.. Stuff I was once taught on just how confused the issue can be is boiled down in one of the earliest posts here: Slim Pickens Revenge (or What I would blog about if I were Tom Clancy). and before you write me off as nuts, I didn't make any of that up.

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July 4th

Can we identify where this photo is taken from?


Image via: United States Flag Store. You can purchase a high res version on their site.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pittsburgh as design hub

I have no idea who this is... but a detailed comparision of Pittsburgh and Cleveland with regards to their potential to be a 'design' hub is here at a site called Bright Innovation.

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economics of hillsides

DNJ at the Post-Gazette looks at the some of the problems associated with hillside development in town.

Unfortunately my collegue Steve Farber has retired and left town, but one of his specialties was just that. The problems have not gone away, and in most cases have only gotten worse, not just for the city and its historical hillside developments.... but in a lot of new developments that are built on or near hillsides... ever see those large machines that 'grind' away the sides of hills for infrastructure development (or mining I suppose they were intended for)? I am pretty sure nobody knows or accounts for the risks associated with much of that. Think about recent news from Kilbuck for an obvious confirmation of that. Anyway...this seems on topic:

An Ecological and Physical Investigation of Pittsburgh Hillsides
ECONOMICS REPORT to the City of Pittsburgh Hillsides Committee
Economics of Hillside Slope Development
November 30, 2004

Raises the obvious question: Does the City of Pittsburgh Hillsides Committee still exist? I really don't know.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A bit of auto-blogging

Not around this week so I left this to go off to fill a day. I get asked how many folks read here. I really don't know. Yes, I do have a hit counter and , but I have been told by more than a few readers that they read via RSS readers out there (Google viewer, bloglines, others?) and obviously those readers are not showing up on in hitcounter metrics unless they click through for some reason.

Nonetheless, I never actually made this chart before. For those who are interested this is what my hitcounter says are unique daily readers here since inception.

Now I can say there are different factors that would tell me those numbers there are either over-estimates of daily readers or under-estimates. Again, most reading via RSS readers are not showing up. I really have no idea how many of those folks are out there. At the same time I am not sure all those 'readers' should 'count'. Given the esoteric topics I put up, what I notice is that search engine hits here are often for things that really have little to do with the blog itself.. so I suspect random folks out there click though, quickly determine there isn't much here for them and move on. There are even a handful of math majors every day looking literally for 'null space' whom I think find little to help them with here.
So there you go.. take it FWIW.

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