Anything from current events, campaign finance reform, sports (especially baseball), corporate/political/legal ethics, pop culture, confessions of a recovering comic book addict, and probably some overly indulgent discourses about my 3-year old daughter. E-Mail: sardonicviews -at-
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Saturday, January 25, 2003

How About That

A few days ago I wondered whether the French and German stance towards war with Iraq was to distract their populace from the economic problems. Well, it looks like that may be so, but it isn't working in Germany (via OxBlog).

Support for Germany's ruling Social Democrats dropped to an historic low yesterday in a clear signal to chancellor Gerhard Schröder of popular frustration at the government's broken election promises and perceived drift.

With two important regional elections next month, the German leader had tried to use opposition to war against Iraq at a rally this week to boost his flagging support.

But his ploy, which worked so well in the German elections last September, has failed to impress a public growing impatient for structural changes to revive the economy.

Looks like it's time to try something new.

Friday, January 24, 2003

I Need a Drink

Someday, I hope the US "drug czar" is Hunter S. Thompson. In the mean time we have John Walters. The man is starting to make me crazy. This is the latest.

Note to boomer parents: It's OK to lie to your children about your youthful drug use, the federal drug czar said Thursday in New Orleans.

"They're your kids, not your confessors," said John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Don't treat them like your peers. Treat them like your children."

But if parents feel their credibility will be ruined with less-than-full disclosures to inquisitive youngsters, Walters said they can still steer their children away from experimenting with narcotics. His suggestion: Temper accounts of youthful folly with tales of cultural icons whose deaths were tied to drugs, ranging from '60s figures such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to grunge rockers such as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.

"No generation knows more about the harm drugs can do than baby boomers," Walters said in an interview. "They know the culture, and the body count."

And if the parents' drug of choice happened to be marijuana, Walters said they should warn their children that the dope being peddled today is much more potent than what the older generation smoked.

Well, I'm not a boomer, just the son of a couple. I have a 7-month old, and while I haven't given a whole lot of thought to what I will tell her about drugs and my usage, I know lying isn't in the plans. There are just too many old friends waiting to tell stories.

To quote from South Park:

Stan: No. [plants his hands along the table's edge] You know what I think? I think this is all an elaborate hoax! [crosses his arms again] And I think that whoever is doing it doesn't have very much respect for me! [uncrosses his arms] See, the best way to try to motivate somebody is by being direct with them, to be honest with them. I think the whole futre self thing is a lie, and lies are never the right way to get your message across.
Randy: Well, you know what I think, Stan?
Stan: What?
Randy: I think he IS from the future.
Stan: Aw, stop it, you guys! I know all about Motivation Corp.! All I've been trying to get you guys to do is admit that you lied to me!
Randy: Oh... Well... Son, we've just been trying to make sure you know how dangerous drugs like pot are.
Stan: I've been told a lot of things about pot, but I've come to find out a lot of those things aren't true! So I don't know what to believe!
Randy: Well, Stan, the truth is marijuana probably isn't gonna make you kill people, and most likely isn't gonna fund terrorism, but... Well son, pot makes yuu feel fine with being bored and... It's when you're bored that you should be learning some new skill or discovering some new science or... being creative. If you smoke pot you may grow up to find out that you aren't good at anything.
Stan: I really, really wish you just would have told me that from the beginning.
Sharon: He's right. If we use lies and exaggerations to keep kids off drugs, then they're never gonna believe anything we tell them

Lying to your kid about anything is dumb. Especially now. See, we have these things called computers. And, like, there's this whole internet thing. Lying/distorting leads to getting your ass fact checked.

They Need a New Hobby

The San Diego Padres sold the naming rights to their new taxpayer funded ballpark this week. The deal was for $60 million over 22-years. The winner, PETCO, a pet supply chain, based in San Diego. Seems harmless. Not a tech company with a shaky financial situation like in Baltimore and New England. Not so. PETA is on the case. They want the Padres to cancel the deal.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is leading a boycott against the San Diego-based pet-supply chain, alleging animal cruelty at some of its stores. The group contends a high number of animals have died from disease and crowding at Petco stores.
James Myers, Petco's chief financial officer, said the company's highest priority is concern and care for animals. PETA's underlying motivation in attacking Petco, Myers said, is that it ``doesn't believe people should have pets.''

PETA has been expending a lot of effort in going after anything involving sports. In recent years, PETA has gone after the Green Bay Packers because of its name; scolded universities that have a gamecock as a mascot (comparing it to spousal abuse); leather balls in all sports (the NCAA actually caved); demanded a soy sausage in the processed meats race at Miller Park; whined about John Madden's turducken; and bitched about the Massillon Tigers. I'm willing to let their hunting and fishing complaints go without comment since, well, I expect that (others, however...).

PETA will claim its concern for the issues. All it's about is generating as much free publicity as possible, and appealing to the elitists. So what if sports fans just ridicule them on the radio, tv, and internet. Who cares if they sneer and change their order to a double slab of ribs out of spite. Those ignorant fools weren't going to give money support PETA anyways.

And You Thought the Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Were Uninspiring

The Ohio Democratic Party is so weak in this state. How weak? They believe that they have a chance to win a US Senate seat if this guy runs:

Talk-show host Jerry Springer is once again considering a return to Ohio politics, this time to run against Republican U.S. Sen. George Voinovich.

The former Cincinnati mayor and self-described "ringmaster" of sleaze television flirted with a run in 2000 against Republican U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine. But after raising some voters' hopes - and many more eyebrows - he exited by saying that "contractual obligations and commitments" in television made a political race impractical.

But Springer said on Wednesday that he will decide by summer whether to run for the Democratic Party nomination to challenge Voinovich, who will seek a second six-year term in 2004.

Well, at least the race might be more fun

Getting Out of the House

Actually got out of the house today. Went to a CLE on volunteer magistrates for juveniles. I'm not actually interested in becoming one, but the wife was one of the speakers, and I got to go for free -- well, sort of. I operated the video camera. Still, it's 4.5 credits on the cheap.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

What Am I Missing?

Jayson Stark [phrasing deleted] Pudge's [deleted] in this commentary about signing with the Marlins. I considered signing with Florida a gamble, but Stark considers it some sort of masterstroke by Pudge and his agent:

We won't know for nine months whether the one-year, $10-million deal Pudge Rodriguez signed with the Marlins on Wednesday will turn out to be a good thing for his new employers. But it's hard to see how it can be a bad thing for the best catcher of his generation.

His alternatives were a three-year, $18-million offer from the Orioles or an opportunity to start speaking Japanese. Let's just say that, by his own admission, Pudge Rodriguez wasn't real big on either Plan A or Plan B.

But Plan C? How fast could he say yes?

True, he'll play this year for not much more than he made last year ($9.6 million). True, he gets no long-term security out of this arrangement. True, it's a long way from the A-Rod-type deal he once thought free agency would bring him.

But for this player in this market at this stage of his career, this was the deal of the century.

Stark conveniently ignores the deferred money. Pudge only (only? never mind, these are baseball salaries) gets $3 million this year. He the rest is deferred, $2 million/year for the following three. The reality is the present value of the contract suddenly seems much more reasonable. Assuming a 10% rate of return on the deferred money, the present value of the contract is actually $7,973,800.50 (go to this site, enter $2,000,000; 10% interest; 3 years; annual; and starting in 1 year. Then add the $3,000,000 from this coming year). Even if you assume the interest rate of 5%, the Present value is $8,446,400.27. That hardly seems like such a great leap over a 3 year $18 million contract (PV @ 10% = $16,413,001.04).

My point is still that Pudge is taking a huge gamble on that he will finally be healthy for the first time in 3 years (Pudge has missed 176 games in the last 3 seasons [71, 51, 54) and in the NL won't be able to DH. If he has another injury plagued season (not exactly unlikely for a 31-year old catcher with a history), what kind of contract will he be looking at for the following season and beyond?

Winter Grilling

I love it. I started doing it in college. I fell out of the habit living in some apartments, but ever since we moved into a house, I go outside to grill dinner every weekend. Just wheel the grill to just outside the garage, set up a work light and start grilling. Okay, the last week or so, it's been really cold and out of concern for my daughter, I didn't grill outside. Apparently I'm not alone (sub. req'd).

It may be the height of some of the coldest weather in recent years, but American cooks have hit on a new obsession: winter grilling. Pushed by a $2 billion grilling business that could use some help, they're out there 2-feet deep in snow with a new generation of "infrared" grills (top temperature: more than 1,600 degrees) and pricey extras such as canvas-covered cooking islands. Some grill makers even introduce new models in January instead of July these days -- and are finding quite a market. Sears says its grill sales jumped 15% in December from last year, while Vermont Islands, a maker of grilling stations, has seen winter-month sales climb 60% in the past two years.
Some purists call the whole winter-grilling movement a bit silly -- after all, what's the point in a cookout if you can't relax on your patio with a cold drink? And traditional grill fare such as swordfish or corn on the cob may not hit the spot when there are football playoffs on the tube. Yet the growing ranks of cold-weather grillers insist the year-round approach makes perfect sense, especially in a down economy. Now their expensive grills can get year-round instead of seasonal use.

Of course, some polar-bear types have always refused to put away the grill tongs when frost hits the ground, while in warmer parts of the country a February barbecue seems perfectly natural. The rise of gas grills helped boost the trend, because they're easier to light. But now the makers of grills and accessories are working hard to turn winter grilling from an oddball hobby into a sizable -- and profitable -- niche. Industry experts credit all this grilling and chilling with helping to revive lackluster sales, with the number of grills sold in 2002 hitting 15.2 million (nearly back to the industry's record levels seen in 2000). Until recently, makers "hadn't given customers much reason to buy a new grill," says a spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Now many makers are pushing hard with a new, pricey, winter-friendly lineup. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rush to sell so-called infrared grills, like the Solaire InfraVection, a 42-inch stainless-steel hulk that costs more than $5,000. The infrared models run on propane or natural gas just like typical grills, but use a special kind of burner with thousands of tiny holes that turns red-hot. These grills get so hot -- 1,650 degrees, more than double the temperature of a standard gas grill -- that even cold windy weather won't slow down the steaks. (One reason for the infrared craze: A key patent on this kind of burner expired, making it cheaper for companies to offer them.) Solaire says infrared sales jumped 50% in 2002 from the year before.

But is a fire hot enough to melt aluminum really necessary to cook pork chops? No less an expert than Bobby Flay, owner of Mesa Grill and Bolo in New York and host of grilling programs on the Food Network, scoffs at the notion that grillers need special equipment for a winter cookout. "You need to have a deft hand," says Mr. Flay, who says he does cold-weather grilling all the time at his East Hampton, N.Y., house (using both charcoal and gas -- but he likes gas in the winter better because it's easy to light). "The grill can't take the credit or blame for a meal," he says, adding that infrared cookers are "excessive."

Excessive in price and heat. No thanks. I use a gas grill right now. I hope to add a charcoal in the spring. I love a real charcoal grill, but I must concede that the convenience and ease of the gas makes tempting not to bother.

More Fleshed Out Version

Cleveland Scene finally vents on the idea of a new convention center, with a handy primer. Essentially, it says most of what I said a couple weeks ago, but with more facts and information. To some degree, Peter Kotz is expanding on his comments from last year, but it is depressing to note that in the space of a year the estimated cost to build a new convention center has ballooned from around $290 to $500 million.

Start stocking up, now

Ohio, like most states, let its spending get out of hand in the 90s. Faced with a $720 million dollar shortfall, Gov. Taft has announced his new budget plans. Of course taxes will be increased.


-- the sales tax would be broadened to include items not previously included (though lawyer and accounting fees would be spared)
-- the cigarette tax would reach $1
-- the alcohol tax would be doubled

That last really hurts. Just when you need it most. The cigarette and alcohol tax increases would go into effect as soon as they are passed. Great.

The strange thing is, and this may shock some to read this, I have found that it is actually cheaper to by beer and alcohol in Pennsylvania than in Ohio. Sad but true. On average, I've found bottles in the liquor stores to be anywhere from $1-$5 cheaper in PA. As for beer, well you may be able to buy beer in Ohio almost anywhere, but bottles of it are only sold in 6 or 12 packs. This makes picking up a case in PA, a cheaper option. I suspect a lot of Ohioans, who are close enough will be doing even more looking over the border (Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania) for price comparisons on cigarettes and alcohol.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Pudge Gambles Big

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez took a big gamble and signed a one year deal with the Florida Marlins. Actually the deal is for $3 million this year, with the rest deferred without interest. The Marlins will pay him $3 million on June 1, 2004, and $2 million each on June 1 in the following two years. Still, he lives in Florida and the lack of a state income tax makes it reasonable as far as the money.

Pudge, is gambling that he will reestablish his all-star credentials and stay healthy for the first time in a while, to allow himself to sign a final big contract next year (he is 31 and most catchers lose value rapidly at this point). The surprising thing (other than the Marlins signing a free agent and giving a "no-trade" clause), is Pudge taking the gamble in the National League, where he doesn't know the pitching. He has spent his entire career with the Texas Rangers, and has faced AL pitching his entire career (excepting of course interleague).

The only other team that appeared to be interested in Pudge, was the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles were playing hardball, trying to get him to sign a 3-year $18 million dollar deal. By not giving him a one year deal, the Orioles missed a chance to add some much needed offense to their line-up -- especially at a position that doesn't usually generate a lot of offense. It looks like they'll be fighting with Tampa for the cellar of the AL East again.

Pitchers and catchers report on February 13.

The Name Game

Apparently one Jeremy Stamper, the alleged president of the alleged Council on Political Accountability, (A Google search for either, revealed nothing) has been registering the domain names of Republican state senators in Ohio and around the country; then linking them through to the National Association for the Advancement of White People (David Duke founded the site) or North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), Planned Parenthood, and sites claiming to sell cheese made of human breast milk and promoting the cloning of Jesus. In addition, he placed the domain names up on eBay for purchase (eBay has since pulled the names). Here is the domain registry on one of the Ohio senators targeted, Randall Gardner.

Senators are angry. The charity is baffled. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro has intervened.

Yet the Seattle-based group that orchestrated the Internet brouhaha said it was only trying to make a political point.

"For 50 years, the Republican Party has had an exclusionary attitude toward people of color," said Jeremy Stamper, who identified himself in a statement as an African-American and president of the Council on Political Accountability. "My hope is that our act of protest in linking their names to the NAAWP will hold a mirror up to these people and their destructive policies."

And here I thought it sounded a lot like some fringe group trying to make a name for itself with an morally and legally questionable activity. The legality is because under the federal Anti-Cyber Squatting Protection Act, permission is necessary before registering or selling a person's name as a Web site domain. Stamper was registering the state senators' full name.

Localized Campaign Finance Reform

Back in August, I noted that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals actually upheld campaign finance laws for Akron, Ohio. The case, Frank v. Akron, was denied reconsideration by the full Circuit in August. Among the limits of this law were:

Limitations on contributions to municipal candidates of no more than $25 in cash per person per year.

Limitations on non-cash monetary contributions of no more than $300 per person for mayor and at-large council candidates and no more than $100 per person for ward council candidates.

Limitations on nonresident contributions of no more than 25% of total campaign contributions from persons who do not resident in Akron.

A prohibition on fundraising for political campaigns prior to 11 months before the General Election.

A requirement that surplus campaign funds be deposited in the City’s General Fund after the General Election.

These same restrictions did not apply to the political parties, so in effect, the law places the election in the hands of party hacks and those rich enough and willing to spend their own money.

The case was appealed but this week the Supreme Court, without comment refused to hear the case.

The only reasons I can think that they refused to hear it was because the whole thing will become clearer after they rule on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform; and/or if they take/took the case from the 2nd Circuit upholding Vermont campaign finance restrictions.

Importing the Good Editorial

I was all set to do it. I really was. I was going to give props to the PD editorial board after the bashing at it on public works projects and taxes. I saw this under editorials:

Know your anti-war allies

It was smart, concise and direct about A.N.S.W.E.R.

Of all the absurdities on display in the anti-war rally in Washington, one stands out: The organizers supported the massacre at Tiananmen Square. True.

Rally organizer ANSWER is a front for the Workers World Party. Their Web sites reveal them not only as Marxist-Leninists, but utter suck-ups to tyrants everywhere.

Slobo? They love him. North Korea? They blame the United States for famine and want you, the taxpayer, to pay reparations to every victim of the regime.

There are good reasons to oppose the war: You're a pacifist. You think we should concentrate on terror cells instead of their sponsoring states. You fret about the cost. You worry that the government has no post-Saddam plans. You worry that war will destabilize the region.

I kept reading and got to the bottom, "James Lileks. Lileks is a columnist for the Newhouse News Service."

It now made sense.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

It Just Gets Worse With Copyright and Being Online

After the Eldred v. Ashcroft decision, comes this:

Internet providers must agree to requests by the music industry to track down computer users who illegally download music, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in a case that could dramatically increase online pirates' risk of being caught.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates upheld the recording industry's power under a 1998 law to compel Net providers to identify customers that illegally trade music or movies online.

Bates acknowledged that the case was an important test of subpoena powers Congress granted to copyright holders under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The judge said that controversial law, which was enacted to uphold copyrights online, permits music companies to force Net providers to turn over the name of a suspected pirate upon subpoena from any U.S. District Court clerk's office, without a judge's order.

Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said, "The illegal distribution of music on the Internet is a serious issue for musicians, songwriters and other copyright owners, and the record companies have made great strides in addressing this problem by educating consumers and providing them with legitimate alternatives."

During a contentious hearing in October, the judge lamented ambiguities in the copyright act, saying Congress "could have made this statute clearer." At the time, the music industry indicated that a ruling in its favor could result in reams of warnings to scare Internet pirates into taking their collections offline.

Well, I'm sure that we can trust the media companies to use these enhanced powers judiciously and with care. The same way the federal government has with the powers it gained during the drug war and the Patriot Act.

Everyone talks about how the RIAA and big media seem to be out to drive their customers away by treating them like potential criminals. Yes, this is another example. It just seems that the web is already filled with amateur, not-so amateur, and even professional works (written, audio, and video) that is freely available (i.e., copyrights not held by the big media) -- that what big media is doing is driving people to find the other works. The more people do this, the more they will turn away from big media in bigger chunks. Big media may still try to blame piracy (as in reduced CD sales -- during a recession; and when a lot of people are reallocating their money to DVDs), but their claims will sound even hollower.

Is It That Simple?

France, received a rebuke from the EU for its economic problems (budget deficits). This is the same warning given in recent months to Germany.

Hmmm. France and Germany are also the most vocal opponents to going to war with Iraq. You don't suppose the French and German governments are trying to distract the populace from their economic problems by trying to draw out and extend a Middle East crisis?

How to End Up With an SUV

In September, I became an SUV owner. I never planned to. I've never fantasized about owning one. Aside from my mom's Dodge 1979 Station Wagon (yes, with the fake wood paneling) that I drove in High School in the late '80s, my cars have been normal to compact size. In fact, I tended to be annoyed with all the SUVs on the road, because of trying to see around them, and because a lot of people don't seem to know how to handle them. Still, after we had our daughter, and did a couple road trips to see family, we knew we needed a bigger vehicle. We didn't have a lot of money (still don't) and can't really take on anymore debt. Most decent, used station wagons and minivans were too exepnsive to consider. At the neighborhood AutoZone, I ended up talking with a guy looking to sell his vehicle, at a great price. A vehicle history report check, visit to the bluebook site, a test drive, and my mechanic checking it out later, we ended up buying a 1992 Ford Explorer. It has been excellent, and given some of the weather we have encountered this year, very useful. I'm not sure I'll ever go back.

All of this leads into reading the David Brooks piece on wanting an SUV as Arianna Huffington and others rush to condemn and blame the SUV and their owners.

The main charge is that people who drive sport "utes" are moral savages. SUV drivers "tend to be people who are insecure and vain" not to mention "self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities," writes Keith Bradsher in his book, "High and Mighty: SUVs -- The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way." Mr. Bradsher says he is only reporting on what Detroit's market research reveals, but thoughtful people are usually skeptical about broad generalizations about people's souls on the basis of what car they drive. Not, however, when the pot of revivalism is aboil. The moral fervor that was in past epochs fixated on witchcraft, whiskey, fur coats, cigarettes and child-abuse rings is now etching SUV in scarlet letters. How to explain this fervor, which has risen to the level of a liberal fatwa?

First, remember this is largely a civil war within the educated class. Nobody seems to assault pickup-truck drivers, even though some of the newer pickups look like wheeled aircraft carriers and their beds are surprisingly unscuffed. Nobody picks on minivans, though the Dodge Grand Caravan ES gets only 6 miles more per gallon than the Dodge Durango SUV. Remember also that, as Van Wyck Brooks, Santayana and others have observed, there have always been two educated classes. On the one hand, there's the genteel elite, which lives in a world of literature, ideas, refinement and modesty. On the other, there's the aristocracy of commerce, people who thrive through self-assertion, competitiveness, daring and magnetism. To put it in modern terms, there are geeks and jocks.

This anti-SUV fervor strikes me as a classic geek assault on jock culture. Here are the geeks: thoughtful, socially and environmentally conscious. They understand that only spiritually shallow people could possibly get pleasure from a motor vehicle. Then there are those jocks. They cruise through life infuriatingly unaware of how morally inferior they are to the geeks. They make money, become popular, play golf and have homes that are too large. And they're happy! For all the wrong reasons! And so every few years the geeks pick on some feature of jock life (McMansions, corporations, fraternities, country clubs) and get all worked up about it. And you know what? The jocks don't care! They just keep being happy. The geeks write, protest and fume. The jocks go to St. Croix.

So the anti-SUV crusade is part of a pattern, but there's also a more worrisome element. In centuries past, the armies of righteousness tended to at least fret about things that really matter: character, virtue, innocence, sin and depravity. These days moral energies are directed at health, safety and risk. Narcissism, dishonesty and promiscuity are regarded as mere lifestyle choices. But driving a car with trunk space is a sin worse than seven of the Ten Commandments. This is defining righteousness down.

If we're going to have moral fervors -- and though they're insufferable, they're overall a positive feature of life -- then let's at least have them about things that really matter. And let's resist the do-gooders' temptation to see everything fun as morally suspect. The anti-SUV brigades like to point out that most owners never actually take them off-road. Imagine what environmentalists would say if they did!

Answer: NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, January 20, 2003

Northern Virginia Fantasy Economics

I swore I was done for the day, but then I read this:

group trying to bring major league baseball to northern Virginia revised upward Monday the expected economic benefits a team and a stadium would generate.

The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, a state agency charged with bringing a team to Virginia, said the figures "provide a compelling case'' for the state to work with private companies to build a stadium and lure the Montreal Expos to Virginia.
The analysis, revising a similar one done in 2000, estimates that 3,384 jobs would be created and $8.9 million in tax revenue generated during the two-year construction of a $300 million stadium.

Following completion, the stadium would create 3,938 full-time jobs and $20.8 million in annual tax revenue to the state and localities, said Stephen S. Fuller, the George Mason University economist who conducted the study. The figures show an increase in the amount of the projected economic benefits by between about 9 percent and 33 percent from the 2000 study.

The study released Monday estimates that Virginia residents will spend $71.5 million in Washington if the team and stadium go there. In that case, Fuller said, Virginia and northern Virginia localities could lose $266.4 million in the team's first 30 years.

I hate these "studies" because they are so full of unrealistic assumptions that they are useless. At the VBSA site, they have the report or the 3 page press release with highlights (both inPDF). The release trumpets on the first lines:

Construction and Operation of $300 Million Ballpark Will Now Produce $11.5 Billion Economic Impact in Virginia over Team’s First 30 Years, According to George Mason University Economist Stephen S. Fuller
Baseball Will Generate Additional $12.9 Million in State Tax Revenue and $7.9 Million in Local Government Tax Revenue Annually in Virginia

Just admit you want a baseball team in the region, and that the only way to get one is with a publicly funded stadium. It's okay, really. Just don't make up shit to sell it.

One more thing

The more I think about the whole Cleveland Convention Center mess, the more annoyed I get. Between cities of similar size and within 450 miles of Cleveland, this would be the competition for conventions:

Buffalo, NY
Charleston, WV
Cincinnati, OH
Columbus, OH
Detroit, MI
Indianapolis, IN
Louisville, KY
Milwaukee, WI
Pittsburgh, PA

Now honestly, if a new convention center is built, how many more conventions can Cleveland look to add? None of the locations exactly scream for a sizable convention in January or February. This is the present schedule. More likely, most of the increase would come from cannibalization. Outside of Cleveland is the Cleveland International Exposition Center (I-X Center), the I-X (the 9th largest convention center in the world) would probably lose some business. Of course, competition that close could also lead to cutting the costs charged to the conventions, and then the "projected gains" disappear.

Cleveland Convention Center Collection

A couple Sundays ago, the Plain Dealer decided that it was time once again to push a new Cleveland Convention Center (which I only got around to mentioning the previous Friday). This past week has seen a number of articles about proposed sites for the new convention center, set forth by the various developers who, amazingly enough, happen to own at least a part of the land where it would be built (what, you thought they'd be altruistic and recommend the "best" spot?). Roughly speaking, there are four proposed locations:

Lakefront property just west of MBNA Cleveland Browns Stadium
Build on the site of the old convention center
Near Public Square into the Warehouse District
The old Norfolk Southern Rail Yard southwest of Jacobs Field

The last is being proposed by developer Bert Wolstein would be "privately financed", and would include a new hotel. Could it be cheaper than the $500 million estimated for the city and county to pay? Well, Bert has already figured out the lease amount and years:

Wolstein yesterday proposed building a 500,000-square-foot convention center, a 20-story hotel and an atrium featuring restaurants and shops. He would lease the convention center to Cleveland for $19.5 million a year for at least 25 years, while keeping the hotel and atrium.
"They wouldn't have to come up with any money out of pocket for construction," said Wolstein, head of Heritage Development Co. "This building is something the city can afford without borrowing $500 million."
Wolstein this week pitched the plan to Mayor Jane Campbell and Joe Roman, director of the influential business group Cleveland Tomorrow. Campbell last week asked business and civic leaders, including Roman, to recommend by the end of the month where a new convention center should be built.

Campbell said yesterday that she is troubled by Wolstein's price tag. The proposal, while sparing construction costs, would still mean a huge public expense to cover the lease, she said.

"I said [to Wolstein], 'You're asking me to give you $500 million for this from the public till,' " Campbell said. "This is a problem."

The PD editorial board weighed in the next day with a confused response.

His proposal is undeniably intriguing. Not since Nick Mileti built the Coliseum in the 1970s has a private entrepreneur stepped forward to build such a major public project in this region. Wolstein's site is the largest being proposed for the convention hall, and thus could allow for expansion. With RTA tracks already on the property, Wolstein's complex could have a handy link to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and Public Square that out-of-town travelers would no doubt appreciate. Its proximity to the interstates would provide easy access to the trucks needed to set up and tear down major events.

Wolstein's proposal also has some big drawbacks. The site is effectively cut off, even from Gateway, by walls of concrete. When Wolstein and his team say it is a five-minute walk from most of downtown's hotels, they must be thinking of Jesse Owens in his prime, not the rest of us. Their proposed 178,000-square-foot main exhibit space is smaller than most planners say the city needs to compete for major regional shows.

Then there is the cost: Almost $500 million over the life of the lease, and the city still would not own the building. The annual debt service on a publicly financed convention center would not be significantly more than Wolstein's proposed lease. But Wolstein says all details are negotiable. He's even willing to consider a lease-buy arrangement for the city.

No site now on the table is ideal. Putting the hall on the lakefront would chew up more shoreline before this community completes a comprehensive plan for that untapped asset. The West Third Street site would place a huge box between the fast-developing Warehouse District and the rest of downtown. To use the current convention center site, the Cuyahoga County Administration Building would have to be moved; that might be a good idea in its own right, but it would take time and money.

That is why it is so important for the business leaders charged by Mayor Jane Campbell with developing a convention center plan to consider every suggestion objectively. Whether Wolstein is popular with the city's business and political establishment has nothing to do with the merits of his proposal. The same goes for Albert Ratner, chief proponent of the West Third site. Convention center decisions must be fair and understandable, so if the decision is to build - and it probably should be - the public can be confident that the best interests of the city and the region have prevailed.

Translation, we don't know if this deal is any better than the others, in fact it looks worse, but we don't want to actually oppose any site.

To be fair, Brent Larkin, the director of the PD editorial board, has decided that it should be eliminated from the mix.

Two plus two equals two.

We repeatedly have been told there are four possible sites for a new convention center. They are the lakefront land west of the Cleveland Browns Stadium, the existing convention center site on Mall C, land near Public Square running west into the Warehouse District, and the former Norfolk Southern rail yard southwest of Jacobs Field, where developer Bert Wolstein proposes a privately owned center.

And the essence of what we are being told is true. Cleveland Tomorrow, the group comprising the area's corporate leaders, eventually will evaluate all of the proposals, consult with others and offer a recommendation.

So, there are four sites - two in or near the heart of downtown and two on the edge of downtown. But four is really two, because the two on the edge of downtown won't make the final cut. They won't make the cut because it would be impossible to forge a consensus around them among those who would fund a campaign to win voter approval of a tax for a convention center.

So this leaves building on the old convention center or the site that has strong ownership interest by Forest City Enterprises. Funny thing about that site, Forest City doesn't have a large ownership interest in the property (around 5%), but the location is right by Tower City, where Forest City happens to own and operate the retail shops. Another funny thing, this is never mentioned by Larkin. It is mentioned in passing in the article about the proposed site

The plan, backed by Forest City Co-Chairman Albert Ratner, developer and former Indians owner Dick Jacobs and others, includes a $300 million to $400 million L-shaped complex on about 8.6 acres.

The property, now used mostly for parking, stretches be tween Superior and St. Clair avenues from just east of West Third Street to West Sixth Street. A three- level, 10-story building would include 410,000 to 460,000 square feet of meeting space. The building would reach over Superior Avenue, connecting to the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel and the Forest City-owned Tower City complex.

A glassed-in lobby would line West Third Street, connecting the meeting rooms to ballrooms across the street.

The plan also includes a Renaissance expansion of 400 to 500 hotel rooms not included in the project price tag. The hotel would probably require substantial government subsidies.

In a surprisingly blunt front page story yesterday, titled "Convention center rides on politics," talking about the baldface political maneuverings to pull this off:

Political leaders know that a convention center alone will be a hard sell, so they are maneuvering to tack on other projects and offer incentives.

“It doesn't by itself make enough economic difference," Campbell said of a new convention center. “What's the package?”

City Council President Frank Jackson has set his terms: He wants at least $250 million over 10 years for projects in Cleveland neighborhoods. And he doesn't care where a convention center goes, as long as Cleveland residents, particularly women and minorities, are among those building it.

“I'm not looking at changing my conditions,"he said last week.

The three county commissioners will have to give suburban residents a reason to vote yes, such as a pot of money earmarked for projects in their communities.

“If the people in Lyndhurst and Fairview Park are not convinced it's essential to them, it's not going to pass," Commissioner Tim McCormack said.

The commissioners also must weigh the potential costs of add- on projects they think are important to the region's economic development. McCormack and Peter Lawson Jones favor money for arts and cultural institutions, as well as emerging industries such as biotechnology and fuelcell research. McCormack does not see the need to hasten the process, even if business leaders are trying to pick a site by the end of the month.

“I'm not in a rush, nor do I believe we should be, to answer these legacy questions," he said. Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, a veteran of county politics, worries that too big a tax will scare off voters, no matter where they live. “I'm still not sold on doing more than a convention center project,"he said.

Further muddying the waters are several local tax issues expected to be on this year's May and November ballots. Voters will not want to pay a bevy of new taxes. To clear the decks for a convention center tax in November, some politicians and business leaders are trying to limit the number of issues that would compete with it.

For now, it appears the May ballot will feature the county's health and human services replacement property tax (originally planned for November) and a replacement property tax for the Cleveland Public Library.

And Campbell acknowledges that the city schools will eventually need a new property tax to cover operating costs. The question is whether to also spring that tax in 2003.
Business leaders have historically favored rebuilding on the site of the current center, at Mall C, because it fits well with their vision of developing the heart of downtown. They are not likely to walk away from the site easily. But Forest City Enterprises Co-chairman Albert Ratner promotes a plan that would squeeze a convention center between Public Square and the Warehouse District — and next his Tower City complex.

Ratner, one of the city's leading developers, will be hard to ignore. He and Forest City employees are generous campaign contributors to Campbell and other local politicians. He also has told City Hall that without his preferred site, Tower City's future looks bleak and he would hesitate to invest more money downtown.

The one thing, that has yet to be pulled out and displayed by the PD or any of the backers -- a good graph or pie chart showing the money that will come in and how it will revitalize downtown.

ADDENDUM: I just noticed this article about Milwaukee also wanting to upgrade their convention center. It never ends. Just make your own bad analogy.

Now I Know It IS A Bad Idea.

Groucho Marx once sang, "Whatever it is, I'm against it."

That's pretty much how I feel when it comes to the Plain Dealer Editorial Board and their opinion on taxes. I don't know if they ever saw a tax proposal they didn't like. Now they come out in favor of the hotel tax increase in Lake County, and use of part of it to pay down some of the bonds to finance the minor league park in Eastlake. Witness this logic impaired editorial:

Eastlake, the Lake County Visitors Bureau and several other cities want the commissioners to increase the county's hotel bed tax so that Eastlake can get $200,000 a year for 10 years to pay down $2 million in bonds.

The tax would be increased from 1.25 percent to 3 percent, with about 0.9 percentage points dedicated solely to the ballpark.

In Ohio, the bed tax goes straight to the local convention and tourist bureau. This means, the Lake County Visitors Bureau (LCVB) would be the recipient and distributor of the funds, really at its discretion.

Already, objections have been raised by a Mentor official, and they deserve a hearing.

Mentor City Councilman Ron Micchia says he doubts the tax can be used for a capital improvement project, and he questions whether the ballpark will benefit the rest of the county.

Denis Benford, president of the Lake County Visitors Bureau, responds that the ballpark, now under construction on Vine Street, meets the definition of tourism since the project could bring in restaurants, retail and visitors from other cities.

On the other hand, there's little debate about the excitement the stadium has generated. Eastlake has a Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians signed up to play in April. The team, the Lake County Captains, has signed a 25-year lease and is already selling tickets to the stadium, which has room for more than 8,000 spectators.

Catch that, the objectors have a right to the hearing, but the ballpark can be considered tourism because people from outside of Lake County might come. Then it is time to point out the "excitement the stadium has generated" based on a team will play there, the seating capacity is around 8,000 and tickets are already on sale. Um, how does that show anything other than local excitement? Where is the showing of how this is bringing in the outside visitors, rather than just reorganizing the local population's use of entertainment dollars? And did anyone mention that the LCVB will have it's new home within the Eastlake ballpark? No? I wonder why?

The commissioners have a duty to go over all of the arguments - the naysayers' questions about the project's economic impact and the boosters' promises of a field of dreams - before they make the final decision.

Most likely, reality will be found somewhere in the middle of the competing claims. But having gone this far on what could be a good deal for Eastlake and Lake County, the commissioners shouldn't find the bed tax idea unreasonable.

Every time I read the last two paragraphs, I find myself rubbing my eyes. The editorial makes no attempt to present good reasons for part of the tax to be used to pay down the bonds Eastlake issued to pay for the ballpark. Funny, the PD doesn't mention that of all the minor league ballparks in Ohio, like in Niles, Akron, and Toledo; none of them get money from the local tourist bureaus.

Susan Hamo, president of the Akron and Summit County Visitor's Bureau, does not consider the Canal Park stadium, where the Class AA Akron Aeros play, a tourist attraction.

"It's a tourist amenity, but not a tourist attraction," Hamo said. "I love it and tourists love it, but it's a local destination, not an attraction. A tourist is someone who comes at least 50 miles for business or pleasure and a stadium is not going to attract that."

Actually, there is one ballpark that gets money from the tourist bureau, Jacobs Field for the Cleveland Indians got the Greater Cleveland visitor's bureau to pay $200,000 a year. So, for the PD it all makes sense.

Lake County has a total population of 227,511. Eastlake, Willoughby and Wickliffe, with a total population of 56,360 (20,255; 22,621; 13,484)all support the tax. Meanwhile, Mentor (50,278) is the first city to vocally oppose. Hopefully, Painesville (17,503), Willowick (14,361), Mentor-on-the-Lake [yes, that is really the city's name] (8,127) will realize how useless this is.

Better to Stay in Pittsburgh than go back to Zimbabwe

Here is an excellent first person account of what Wallace Chuma found on his return to his home in Zimbabwe after a six-month fellowship in Pittsburgh. As you would expect, he does not paint an upbeat picture.

I returned to Zimbabwe last month, apprehensive and anxious, having kept up with my homeland's decline into near famine via news reports and e-mails from friends, who suggested I extend my stay in the U.S. "by all means necessary." It didn't take long to see how badly things had deteriorated in a mere half-year.
As we drove home, the friend who picked me up from the airport could not hide his disappointment.

"So, you've decided to come back?" he said. I told him I had to under U.S. law, after the completion of my fellowship.

"If whoever sponsored you for that program could not extend your stay, then you should have considered applying for asylum," he said. He told me most of my friends, educated professionals, had left the country during my brief absence.

As we drove on, I wanted to ask why the highway was deserted. But I figured it was because most people preferred to spend Saturday afternoon indoors.

My friend read my mind. "Look, there're no cars on the roads. Motorists are either in petrol queues or they have parked their empty cars. We've been without enough fuel for God knows how long." He himself was still driving courtesy of the thriving black market, where a liter of gasoline costs 15 times the government's posted price.

I soon discovered that Harare, the capital, had turned into two cities.

In one, thousands work around the clock to scrape by, and thousands more spend the better part of their days queuing for gasoline, bread, cooking oil, corn meal -- virtually everything. This is a city of broken people, loafers and frustrated professionals whose monthly salaries can carry them only a few days past payday.

The other Harare, the seat of government, is a paradise for the properly connected. Affluent young men with tony briefcases drive the latest Mercedes or BMW sedans, armed with tiny cell phones and pistols (despite stringent government regulations on the possession of firearms). These members of the privileged class make their fortunes through illegal dealing in foreign currency (which is in critical short supply) and other scarce commodities. They also bank on backdoor contracts from government departments. Everybody envies them.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Throw in an Exorcism Just for Good Measure

I'm just not sure that this will be enough:

The new tenant of James Traficant's old congressional office is trying to rid the place of what he calls the Traficant taint.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, whose staff moved into the suite in December, is inviting lawmakers and congressional staff members to attend a "cleansing ritual" Jan. 29 to exorcise the memory of Traficant in the rooms. "Toupees, leisure suits, prison or Trekkie garb optional," say the invitations in mock tribute to the Ohio lawmaker.
For the most part, staff members who work near Traficant's old stomping grounds said the "purifying ceremony" sounded bizarre but entertaining, a lot like the ex-congressman himself.

"It's all done in fun," said Nick Martinelli, who works for Florida Democrat Corrine Brown next door. "After this party, it will all be over for the Traficant-related shenanigans."

Not everyone, however, finds all this amusing. Two Youngstown natives who work for non-Ohio lawmakers said the Traficant jokes were getting a little stale.

If Bush is stupid/stole the election jokes are still being bandied about, then Traficant jokes should be good for at least another six months.


(Copyright © 2002-2005 Chas Rich All rights Reserved.);
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