Friday, February 04, 2005

Echo Whispers

With apologies to "local" author Patrick Naville, I'm appropriating the title of his fascinating novel (it imagines a world in which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid survive their cinematic shootout, only to run afoul of the Capone mob in Prohibition-era Chicago).

I'd like to echo the sentiments expressed today at NA Confidential. Along with the "echo," I'll add a little "whisper" down below.

It is not the purpose of Volunteer Hoosier to target any person or institution. It is intended to highlight the needs of this region and to identify reasonable means for meeting those needs.

Long before our bookstore ever existed, we planned for a series of quarterly public affairs symposia. We've now scheduled the first one for March 2. That's a Wednesday and starting at 7 p.m. we'll host a panel of passionate citizens who will discuss "New Visions for Downtown New Albany."

This first event will be at Destinations Booksellers, which is in the heart of the historic district at 604 East Spring Street. The store will close early that day and we expect an overflow crowd.

Each participant on this moderated panel brings a wealth of ideas and experience to the event, and each tends to represent one or more important viewpoints that will be critical to the prosperity of the city over the coming decades.

We are inviting a number of other active citizens to make 2-minute presentations on particular topics which the panel will discuss.

I've had a lot of feedback about this symposium and not all of it is good. Some people seem to feel threatened by it, as if it's presumptuous for a group of citizens to take it on themselves to discuss solutions to the obvious problems facing the city and its central business district.

Well, tough. I can imagine only one type of person who would feel, make that two types.

The first would be someone in a position of responsibility who is not doing his or her job for this city. The people I've talked to and who helped to select the topic for this first symposium are exactly the people who stand ready as allies to help anyone who has dedicated themselves to the progress of this city.

The second type would be anyone who has arrogated to themselves the sole power to decide matters for this town. As the music man said, if that's the case, there be trouble right here in River City.

If you're not doing your job, feel threatened.

If you think it's your right to decide, whether out of personal profit or petty pride, feel threatened.

Neither of those describes you? Then join us as we share and discuss ideas of mammoth scope and ideas simply consummated. Add to the conversation with your ideas by dropping us a note, mailing us an envelope, or posting a comment on this blog.

We'll keep posting if you'll keep reading.


For stimulating ideas and research, you owe it to yourself to check out NA Renewal and the bloggers thereon.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

What else is there to say?

SBC, in the midst of a massive P.R. blitz to convince opinion-makers that they are the salvation of mankind, showed their hand this week in stripping away the deciding vote to bring Charlestown into the 21st century.

Yes, the fabulous news reported here last week that our sister city was going to take the plunge and erect a citywide wireless network turns out to be a false promise.

Even though SBC refuses to bring universal high-speed Internet to the city, they were able to forestall the implementation of a municipal wireless service that would have paid for itself and generated great income for the city's coffers.

With House Bill 1148 set for a June 30, 2005 effective date, it seems that Charlestown will be one of those city's who will be forever under the thumb of the telcos. The law would make it nigh unto impossible to provide universal service and would, in essence, let SBC and its ilk determine who survives and who dies in the areas of job creation, job retention, education and effective service provision.

Greg Gapsis details the fiasco that took place in Clark County in this story...oops, The Evening News decided it wasn't worthwhile to post today's news on its Web site today.

County exploring cyberspace?

Open call to readers: Any way you can go and monitor the County tech workshop at 5:30 tonight at the City-County meeting? Or find someone else. I'm told they’re discussing tech solutions to service delivery, broadband, Web sites, etc. as discussed in a previous post.

This is a working session, but the public can observe.

Is it open season on the public?

Fellow blogger bluegill and I have continued a thread off-blog that addresses many of the key aspects of the current assault on telecommunications freedom. In retrospect, we should have posted that here, so, with apologies, read on.

I e-mailed this letter to our local lawmakers, using this link:

I write urging you to oppose, procedurally and otherwise, the passage of House Bill No. 1148, which would preempt municipalities from bringing broadband Internet services to their entire populations, even when
regulated telecommunications companies deny or delay the rollout of this essential democratizing service.

I am eager to know your views on this bill and your evaluation of its likelihood of passage.

I received this reply:

Thank you for your recent email expressing your opposition to House Bill 1148 (local government telecommunications).

Please be assured that I do not support of this bill. I have worked with several municipalities in my district where they would, in fact, control the facilities that would provide these services.

Again, thank you for sharing your concerns with me.

Senator Richard D. Young, Jr.
Minority Floor Leader

Bluegill wrote:

Thanks for sharing. I've not gotten a response from Jim Lewis or Paul Robertson.

How about that 1518? SBC and Verizon could cripple all of southern Indiana just because they feel like it. If the state legislature thinks that broadband has been used as a bargaining chip, how about statewide service rates for basic telephony?

I've been communicating with Mike Wirth and Ron Rizzuto at the University of Denver. They are the authors of a report on municipally owned communications networks often quoted by telcos and cable giants.

Their results, of course, show that municipal ventures consistently operate in the red. My first email to Wirth stated that I thought the telcos were misstating the report's findings by not mentioning many qualifications the researchers themselves included in the original report. He and Ron responded that it was I who misunderstood the qualifications and stated that their more recent studies confirmed that none of the municipal networks they looked at were self sustaining. They did offer to answer questions, though.

I asked:

1. If any of their research dealt with wireless networks and if the much lower cost of entry made a difference
2. If their studies involved control groups, i.e., nearby, similar cities that decided not to invest in broadband. If so, how did the non-connected cities fare in comparison?
3. Did they look at overall benefit to the community and, if so, how did they calculate the worth of improved educational opportunities, saved or created jobs, etc ?

They offered to send me a full copy of their report and I happily accepted. It's clear that somebody's lying and the full report should help me determine who that is. It certainly doesn't mean the report itself is entirely accurate or representative of other municipalities.

Why did they initially choose such a small number of cities? How did they choose which cities to examine? I think the initial four city report was completed in 1998 when some of the technology involved was much more expensive. How have start up costs changed since then?

I responded to bluegill:

Quantifying the social benefits is always tough. If a city "loses" money but creates jobs, enables breadwinners to telecommute, brings educational and recreational resources within reach of the entire community, how do you quantify that?

Right-wingers object to public expenditures even when the benefits are measurable. When they hear talk like this, they denigrate it as "squishy" and feel-good liberalism. A truly objective researcher would at least attempt to assign value to the social benefits. They certainly assign values to the social costs when the economic analysis doesn't suit their purposes.

And who's measuring the public subsidy aspects of allowing utilities to have unlimited easements or piggybacks on public and private lands. One could easily assign a lease value to that to prove that there is a government-enforced subsidy to bring utilities to the city. If I wanted to string a wire across your property or dig a ditch in your driveway, how much would you charge me? It has been accepted that that is for the public good and therefore you must suffer the costs without compensation.

All we want is intellectual honesty.

bluegill replied:


I used Scottsburg and Glasgow, KY, as examples when writing Wirth and Rizzuto. Scottsburg is saving about $6000 a month in T1 line lease fees for their public schools. That doesn't show as income for the network but it still saves $72k from the public pot per year. That alone would
pay for their initial $385K infrastructure investment in about 5 1/2 years. Glasgow has the lowest rates in their area for broadband and cable. Residential broadband, for example, is currently priced at $24.95 per month. One study estimated that subscribers to the municipal network there have saved $3 million out-of-pocket since the network's inception.

The quantified amount with which the government subsidizes the utilities with land use would be colossal. If property is selling in new residential neighborhoods for $30K per lot and 5% is easement, the utilities owe that property owner $1500. That's almost four years of basic phone service.

As I pointed out early, if these utilities don't want to act in the public interest, the public should stop subsidizing them. If 1518 gets passed and telco service costs become totally unregulated, I'm going to assume that I can charge SBC whatever I want for the use of my land - and kick them off if they don't pay.

I later received this missive from Sen. Connie Sipes's office via her aide, Charlotte Lemieux:

This is a House bill and we in the Senate have not debated this yet. Believe me, I will study it thoroughly when it does come to the Senate.

Connie W. Sipes
State Senator
District 46

P.S. please feel free to educate me on this issue.

I replied and share my letter in redacted form:

Thank you, Senator, and Charlotte.

And thank you for the invitation. My business service area and the readership of my Web log include Sen. Lewis’s district, too....A group of us are tracking this bill, which would effectively pre-empt municipalities from creating universal broadband services and allow the telcos to cherry-pick and delay the offer of service to middle-income and rural residents in your constituent service area...This bill would have made [Scottsburg and Scott County's Internet program] impossible. With Charlestown currently planning a broadband rollout municipal utility and New Albany discussing it within the administration, this is of vital local importance.

One or more of our group will follow up with links and additional educational information about this bill (HB 1148) that was written by the chief lobbyist for one of the telcos. No surprise, but the actual MS Word document explaining the bill bears his digital signature. I’m sure you will be able to oppose this bill if it makes it through the House, but there is no time like the present to learn about it. Watch for a fairly comprehensive article in The Evening News The Evening News by Greg Gapsis...

Anyone want to educate Sen. Sipes? She seems willing to listen. I've received no replies from the House members I contacted using this link.


As many of you know, we've never been afraid to point you to other Web logs. In addition to our own postings, we frequently peruse (and comment on) the blogs of others.

With our friends at NA Confidential on a somewhat modified hiatus and without access to the editorial pages of our local chronicle, we felt it was incumbent on us to pick up a thread actually started by The Tribune's Managing Editor, Chris Morris.

NA Confidential took issue with Mr. Morris's Sunday editorial, which condemned a Michigan company's termination of 5 employees who refused to submit to testing as a condition of employment. The test purportedly measures whether the employees had been smoking (on their personal time), which would have violated their conditions of employment.

Personally, I think refusing to be tested undercut any claim of rights the employees might have had. Termination for failing the test MIGHT have set up a test case, but refusing to be tested seems to be insubordination, per se.

I think NA Confidential's beef was with Morris reasoning and "pandering" to a certain mindset. NA Confidential frequently deplores the "easy" editorial stances Morris takes.

Another New Albanian, Blaise N. Loop, sounds off in Wednesday's letters to the editor with a wide-ranging protest to Morris. In his wide-ranging letter, which primarily addressed the extremes of conservatism and liberalism (and I do mean the extremes) in government and employer-employee relations, he makes this telling point:

"[U]sing nicotine addiction and obesity as examples of freedoms to defend is sad and unfortunate."

Food for thought.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Civic Economics study correction

In October, we reported on a new study by Civic Economics (the Andersonville study) that found that locally owned businesses generate bigger economic benefits for communities. Civic Economics recently uncovered a small error in their calculations. In the corrected study, a few of the numbers are slightly altered, but the overall findings of the report remain unchanged. Specifically, the local stores generated $263 in sales per square foot (the original figure was $246) and the amount of money they retained in the local economy was $68 (rather than $73) for every $100 in sales. We've corrected our summary of the findings. - The New Rules Project.

Responsive and responsible

Just received this missive from Sen. Young.

Dear Mr. Smith:

Thank you for your recent email expressing your opposition to House Bill 1148 (local government telecommunications).

Please be assured that I do not support this bill. I have worked with several municipalities in my district where they would, in fact, control the facilities that would provide these services.

Again, thank you for sharing your concerns with me.


Senator Richard D. Young, Jr.
Minority Floor Leader

Thank you for the quick response, Senator. We will remember you at election time. And we hope to hear from your colleagues who represent this area.

City with a plan

Lord knows, not everyone agrees with my take on big-box retail chains vs. independent businesses, but the facts need to be addressed. The giant sucking sound you hear comes when the profits derived from your retail spending go flying out of town on the express jet.

See what one town is doing to prevent the negative impacts of big boxes. Sounds like visionary planning, to me.

Don't look away

For sale. One bright, shiny retail store on New Albany's west end. Completely renovated with new lighting and carpet, all occupancy permits in place. Municipalities invited to bid. Asking price: $350,000 and up. During sale period, new owner will be entitled to profits from operations. Non-government bidders should be aware that city government appears prepared to reimburse owner fully for all capital and operating expenses not covered by revenues.

As amazing as it sounds, the city is preparing to buy an adult DVD store. You'll remember that the city spent $69,000 defending the indefensible after-the-fact ordinance designed to kill the store in its crib. Federal District Judge Sarah Evans Barker took one look at the case and ruled the store could reopen.

Lacking any ordinance to regulate such businesses, the city rushed to stop it after the fact. Setting aside any First Amendment issues, the city had to know it was discarding any semblance of due process. They had to know it. But, unwilling to admit their mistake, the city council decided to spend at least $69,000 defending it.

Now, exacerbating the city's budget problem, they plan to meet Monday in executive session to consider paying off the store's owners to the tune of $350,000 or more.

A blast-fax and e-mail chain must be spinning through the ether right now with the headline "New Albany Ripe for the Plucking." The city needs to recruit new businesses, but this isn't the way. "Extortion Capital of the Midwest" isn't the title we want.

One would expect lawyers to start combing over the city's code of ordinances looking for loopholes and escape hatches.

Build a new business that will offend one or more constituencies, goad the city into shutting you down, file a federal lawsuit, and within a few months you can pick up your payoff check at the City-County Building.

That will certainly be convenient. You can apply for your new permits while you're there. Be sure to bring a check for your new building permits and kill two birds with one stone.

Hey. Give me $419,000 and I'll have a half-dozen new retailers downtown by summer. But the city would never give new business grants to prospective entrepreneurs. I'm sure the council would consider that "wasteful."

To be fair, the story as written by Ben Zion Hershberg of The Courier-Journal is much worse than that. The real lede on the story is the previously unknown $2 million liability to the sewer board that may well handcuff the city for the next year. Read Unpaid loan may hinder settlement.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, lawmakers are debating House Bill 1518, a bill that would completely remove all regulation of local phone service. The telecommunication companies are dangling incentives and promises, and have persuaded Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Indianapolis, to carry their water. Capital Correspondent Lesley Stedman Weidenbener reports for The Courier-Journal in Local phone rules might be eliminated.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Setting a course for progress

The aftermath of the second City Council meeting of the year continues to provide grist for the journalistic mill as The Tribune's Amany Ali provides us with yet another follow on story in today's editions.

Her investigative piece on council-mayor tensions regarding appointments was followed by a profile of the city's new Building Commissioner, Paul Roberts. Today we get the first public utterances from the squared-away Economic Development Director, Paul Wheatley.

Some of what he has to say is the expected - "Certainly, the city of New Albany needs a bit of revitalization."

But as Wheatley surveys his new responsibilities, he and the mayor have apparently been exploring the mundane and the exotic.

The biggest surprise is Wheatley's mention of how wireless Internet for the city could be a benefit.

Does he mean universal access by means of a public utility? Or are they discussing a wireless network for the city government? We'd love to hear more. Other municipalities have realized substantial savings by creating their own broadband utility, but in areas where broadband was otherwise completely unavailable.

Since the satellite providers bailed out on Internet service, wireless or land line has been the only alternative, and when the telcos refuse to bring service to outlying areas, it can be a devastating to those communities and their jobs/economic survival.

We're not quite in the same fix, with at least two alternatives for high-speed Internet, but we'd like to see it extended throughout the county/region. The little-known secret is that a municipal utility can, through its enterprise powers, generate significant revenues from outside its boundaries by creating a wireless system.

In Ali's article, Wheatley comes off as an alert guy who recognizes the need for caution, but who also has a modicum of vision in his new role as the city's chief recruiter.

I was at first alarmed at his statement that "we need your anchor-type stores, which would attract other stores." I'm prepared to reserve judgment until I hear him clarify that priority statement. He defines anchor projects to include Scribner Place and such businesses as bookstores. Quickly, we need to take up a collection to buy Wheatley a copy of The Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores, and Why it Matters.

Read Ali's story, when posted, at or pick one up at your local independent bookseller.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Taking a walk

Our intrepid band of surveyors launched today, and while allusions to Lewis & Clark would be inappropriate, the frigid temperatures lent an air of bicentennial authenticity.

Working as a team, we were able to piece together some of the raw data, architectural heritage, and unfiltered rumor about one segment of the downtown business district. We managed to do a fairly decent survey of the west bank of Pearl Street from Oak Street to Main Street.

Still, this is just a beginning. We still need volunteers to search the tax records and visit the various businesses during the working day.

Exploring afoot gives a much richer perspective on the uses and misuses of the space downtown. Of course, a sidewalk survey can be misleading since you can't explore the nooks and crannies and a Sunday is not the best time to find the street's businesses occupied (more's the pity).

As a newcomer, I found the survey raised more questions. For example: Is a private parking lot the highest and best use for the corner of Spring and Pearl, former site of the U.S. Post Office/Federal Building? Or is that public land being used for private parking? Elsewhere, it appeared that vast parking space was being reserved for some future influx of commercial tenants and clients. Could that be put to use in the meantime? We explored some of the parking space referred to on City Clerk Marcy Wisman's Web site - the space for which her office issues monthly permits.

Working as a group also enabled us to share our speculations about the future uses of prime downtown property and the missed opportunities that continue to plague the city in its recruitment of new entrepreneurs.

Join us next time, or offer your time to flesh out our research with time in the property office to determine who owns what. Working on a Sunday afternoon prevented us from soliciting help from many of the folks who make downtown their workday home, but a door-to-door canvass for ideas and intelligence would be a great help.

You'll also be interested to know we were able to talk with a few downtown merchants and residents who offered keen insights and visions for the future of downtown.

Which is the whole point. That's what we'll discuss just four short weeks from now at the Destinations Booksellers Public Affairs Symposium for Winter 2005. The topic is New Visions for Downtown New Albany. The panel and moderator have accepted our invitation and we are gathering ideas, comments, and studies for a wide-ranging discussion. We believe this will be an important event for the future of the city, so if you have a contribution to make to the symposium, speak up now. We'll have selected members of the audience make two-minute presentations of an idea or a question and the panel will address them in sequence.

This symposium is designed as a forum to discuss ideas to rescue downtown as a commercial, recreational, and residential haven. All residents and other interested parties are encouraged to participate, and we'll have the welcome mat out for our public officials, too. Stay tuned. We'll be sharing more with you in the coming days, including our essay contest for elementary and secondary school pupils.