When Should The Incentives Stop?

Most cities use tax incentives and tax breaks as inducements to development of depressed areas, to lure businesses considering relocation, and to promote other activities that are viewed as economically or culturally positive for their communities.

Cities try to be judicious and targeted in providing the incentives, but of course there’s no certainty in predicting how economic and cultural forces will play out.  Sometimes the incentive plans work and produce the hoped-for benefits, and sometimes they don’t.

608d7dbd-7704-4938-b6cb-ef2a77673a8eRichard recently wrote an interesting article about one aspect of tax incentives:  if they are successful and work as intended, when should they end?  The subject of the article is the Pearl Brewery area in San Antonio — which, by any measure, has been a fabulously successful use of tax incentives.  The incentives have helped to turn what was once a blighted area into a kind of tourist attraction with fine restaurants, pubs, office space, hotels and apartments.  When Kish and I have visited San Antonio we’ve gone to the Pearl area, and it’s hard to imagine it once was a depressed area.  Most cities would love to have a place like the Pearl Brewery District.

And the Pearl Brewery development has produced more tax revenue for the city:  property taxes for the area were $144,000 in 2003, when the development started, this year, tax revenues hit $6.7 million, of which $783,000 was refunded by the city under the tax rebate agreement.  It’s a classic example of how tax incentives are supposed to work.

Now, San Antonio is trying to decide whether the Pearl Brewery District is successful enough, and mature enough, to stand on its own without the incentives.  Some people in the city say that, with the Pearl having become a high-end, expensive area, the subsidies should stop and development efforts should start to focus on other parts of San Antonio.  The Pearl area developers, on the other hand, say that the tax incentives remain essential if the area is to reach even greater heights — with more jobs, more construction, and ultimately more tax revenue.

It’s a tough call — but it’s also a problem that a lot of other cities would like to have.

Groom And Groomsmen 

Somebody asked for a family photo from the wedding.  The short answer is that I was so busy attending to the many duties of the FOG that I didn’t take one.  But here’s the next best thing:  a picture of Richard and his dashing groomsmen.  Right to left you got the best man, the groom, Richard’s friend since childhood Scott, and Richard’s grad school buddy Arthur.  They cleaned up pretty well.

Well And Truly Married

The weather cooperated, the beautiful ceremony went off without a hitch, the toasts are over, and the guests ate, drank, and danced with abandon.  By any measure, the Hill Country Nuptials were a roaring success.  

Now we wish Richard and Julianne much joy and happiness on their life together, which starts today with a honeymoon in Italy.  As for the rest of us, it’s back to the real world.

30

Today Richard turns 30.  It’s one of those round number birthdays, divisible by ten without fractional results, that we tend to think of as especially significant.  Of course, in reality it’s just the turn of a calendar page; it’s not as if the adulthood fairy taps you with her wand when you turn 30 and converts you into a real grown-up.

And yet, it’s significant just the same, isn’t it?

I think we tend to focus on those round number birthdays, especially the early ones, because each decade of our existence can be aptly captured by a word or two.  From zero to 10 you’re just a kid, happy and unselfconscious and wondering at the world and soaking up just about everything.  From 10 to 20, you’re the self-absorbed teenager, fretting about your popularity and your place in the social, sports, and academic order at middle school and high school and college.  And in your 20s, you’re trying to figure out which way your life will go, finishing college, taking your first long-term job and then leaving it, moving from one city to another, and perhaps getting a second degree.

0001993830, though, seems to be the jump-off point for real adulthood.  You’ve settled on your career, and your personal situation is more settled, too.  People treat you like a fully functional, contributing member of society.  You stop getting carded at bars.  And for some of us, your parents start to lean on you for help and support and — gulp! — advice and decision-making.  After you hit 30, Mom and Dad start to seem a lot less iconic and a lot more human.

I distinctly remember when Kish and I turned 30.  We hosted a party for our friends at a local joint called the Grandview Cafe.  All of the people who were there were couples about our age, early in their careers, with little kids at home.  It was a fun party, but not the kind of wild, kick out the jams, loud-music-and-on-the-edge-of-barfing revelry of earlier days.  At the time I had worked at the firm for about eight months, Richard hadn’t quite hit his first birthday, and unbeknownst to us Russell would be joining the family a year later.  We were no longer on the cusp of adulthood — it had arrived.

Parents tend to hold on to a mental image of their kids as kids — or at least, I do.  When I think of Richard, my brain begins with the skinny, blond-haired kid who loved Home Alone and liked to build elaborate Lego worlds and created a comic-book character named Blurby and loved roller coasters.  That mental image is no longer accurate, and hasn’t been accurate for a long time.  He’s built a successful career as a talented professional journalist, he’s engaged to be married, and he’s been thoughtfully navigating the shoals of adulthood, on his own, for several years now.

In short, he’s 30.

Happy birthday, Richard!

Marine Mammal Deaths At SeaWorld

On Sunday the San Antonio Express News published a terrific, but immensely sad, story by Richard about the deaths of orcas, dolphins, and other mammals at the SeaWorld parks.  What’s Killing the Orcas at SeaWorld? takes a careful look at the statistics of creatures dying at SeaWorld and quotes trainers, SeaWorld employees, research studies, and animal rights activists in an effort to address the care of marine mammals in captivity and whether they are more likely to die than members of their species in the wild.

Infections seem to be a huge problem for marine mammals in captivity.  Richard’s story reviewed reports that SeaWorld filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and calculated that almost 150 orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and beluga whales have died of infections at SeaWorld since 1986, and five dolphins, whales, and sea lions have died of various infections — such as fungal infections, bacterial infections, and inflammation of the brain — since May 2014.

wild-orca-alaska_siThe big point of contention is whether living in captivity contributes to those deaths, as animal rights advocates contend, or whether the creatures at Sea World are no more prone to infections than members of the species living in the wild.  As Richard’s article reports, that’s tough to assess, because there aren’t many reliable studies of the lives of these mammals in their native habitat.  Animal rights advocates argue that creatures that have evolved over millennia to range widely over large areas of ocean, hunt their own food, and form relationships in the wild simply aren’t suited to captivity.  The advocates believe the orcas become stressed (and show it by breaking their teeth chewing on concrete and metal) and the stress makes them more prone to infection.  Richard’s article quotes some former SeaWorld trainers who talk about the constant medication that some of the mammals have received.  And while we don’t know the prevalence of infection deaths in the wild, we do know this — orcas, dolphins, and sea lions have somehow survived and thrived in our oceans for centuries without have to be heavily medicated by human beings.

I should note that SeaWorld has criticized Richard’s story, saying on its blog:  “The article is unfairly critical of SeaWorld and misleads readers with incomplete sets of facts that are presented in a biased way.”  I respectfully disagree.  I think the piece is a fair treatment of an important issue that employs the tools of great investigative journalism, like review of public records, getting quotes from people on both sides of the story and experts, and then trying to piece things together.  The reality is that the death of the marine mammals in the care of SeaWorld is just an uncomfortable topic for SeaWorld.

I’ve never cared much for zoos or places like SeaWorld.  I feel sorry for the animals that are caged, and I think it reflects poorly on us that we keep creatures that are meant to be in the wild penned up for our entertainment.  It’s particularly appalling that we confine marine mammals that show clear signs of intelligence, like orcas, and then have to dope them up to try to keep them alive.  Richard’s story just heightens that view.

Prince’s Passing

It was a shock to hear yesterday about the death of Prince, at age 57.  The musical star was found dead in an elevator in his home, and the cause of his death is not yet known.  It’s a huge hit to the music world, which has been reeling in the wake of a series of deaths — David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, and now Prince — that make it seem like 2016 is the Grim Reaper’s year to swing that scythe of his through the ranks of iconic figures in different branches of the music world.

I first heard of Prince and his music back in the ’80s, during the early days of MTV, when that channel still played music.  During Richard’s infant days I spent some nights sitting in our rocking chair, with Richard’s belly pressed against my shoulder, rocking during the wee hours of the early morning and hoping he would fall back asleep.  Richard seemed to do better with some background noise, so we often turned the cable channel to MTV and listened to the music of the mid-80s.

prince-ctcOne of the frequent songs on the MTV late night/early morning playlist in those days was Prince’s Raspberry Beret, and another was the Bangles’ Manic Monday, which the MTV VJs noted was written by Prince. They were both frothy pop songs, catchy but lightweight, the kind of songs where the melody and lyrics seemed to get injected directly into your brain cells and you can’t get them out no matter how hard you tried.  Those songs defined and informed my views of Prince, and I dismissed him as a talented but somewhat insubstantial pop star.  When Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and started to get into battles with record companies and others I added egotistical to the list of adjectives I associated with him.

Ironically, it was Richard who reintroduced me to Prince.  Perhaps it was his exposure to Raspberry Beret during his infancy — OK, maybe not — but Richard became a huge fan of Prince, and during his college days at Northwestern he hosted a weekly, multi-episode show on the campus radio station that was devoted to Prince’s career and songs.  Perhaps fittingly, it was broadcast during the wee hours in Evanston, and aired, I think, during the 5-6 a.m. slot, Eastern time.  If I woke up early, as I usually do, I could catch it live via web radio.  It was fun and sort of weird to hear Richard’s voice on radio first thing in the morning, so I tried to listen to the show whenever I could.

Through Richard and his radio show I learned a lot more about Prince — and realized that my casual dismissal of him on the basis of two songs was far off base.  His music was a lot more thoughtful and interesting and ground-breaking than I had given him credit for, and I added a lot of it to my iPod playlist where it has stayed ever since.  I’m sorry to hear of Prince’s untimely death, and sorry to know that Richard has lost a favorite artist — and I’m also sorry that I didn’t appreciate a great talent for so many years.  The creative world is poorer without Prince in its ranks.

 

Always A Castle Builder

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Richard’s on vacation in sunny Mexico, and his fiancee Julianne snapped some photos of him building a sand castle.  It’s some good castle-building work on his part — part of a long line of castle-building prowess that dates back to his childhood.

I have happy memories of building castles with Richard and Russell when they were kids.  Good to see that the architectural tendencies still run strong!

Kids On The School Stage

A few days ago a drama teacher at Richard and Russell’s school gave Kish some pictures of the kids when they were in various productions, years ago.  There were some snapshots of Russell dressed up like a Native American for one school play, and this picture of Richard in a somewhat Harry Potterish old man costume and makeup for another.

The pictures brought back memories, of course — and they were all good ones.  Any parent who has watched their child perform in a school play remembers the tension and nerves as the show time neared, because you were praying fervently that there wasn’t some mishap or stumble after the weeks of learning lines and practicing and staging.  But then the curtain would go up, the kids would perform like champs, the parents would feel a sense of great relief, and in the end it was clear that the kids who were in the show had a ball.

IMG_0129And years later, when you think about your kids’ school years, it turns out that the theater performances created many of the strongest memories.  When Richard was in kindergarten he played a squirrel in a short play called The Tree Angel and had the first line.  The teacher said she picked Richard because she was absolutely sure that he would not be nervous and would say the line without a problem, and she was right.  I felt like I learned something important about our little boy that day.  Several years later, Richard played Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even sang a song on stage (“Cheer up, Charlie . . . “), and did a great job.  Russell, too, had his turns before the footlights, memorably playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned Native American character, who I think was named Bullseye and (intentionally) got a lot of laughs in another show.

The point isn’t that our kids were great actors or stars, and their participation didn’t turn them toward Broadway or Hollywood for their adult careers.  But those school plays did give them a chance to shine on stage and to know firsthand what it was like to perform in front of an audience — and, in the process, to get a better sense of themselves and their capabilities.  School is supposed to do that.  The fact that the performances are warmly recalled by parents, years later, is just the icing on the cake.

When I look at these old photographs, I think about the school systems that, for budgetary reasons, have cut their theatre programs, or their orchestra or choir programs, or their art programs.  When the budget axe falls, those programs get chopped first, on the rationale that they are non-academic and therefore non-essential:  after all, the standardized tests that seem to drive school policy these days don’t check whether you can act or sing or play an instrument.  But that reasoning is wrong-headed, and also sad.  It doesn’t recognize how those programs greatly enrich the school years and help to produce more well-rounded students who have tried something new and now are bonded by the shared experience of performing before an audience — and it also deprives the parents of that deep, lasting thrill of learning something new about their child.

Giving Pizza A Bad Name

1024x1024Richard has a good story in the San Antonio Express-News about a cheap scam that is plaguing San Antonio hotels.  It involves people sneaking into the establishments, slipping fliers for local pizza under the doors of hotel guest rooms, and then when hungry and unsuspecting visitors order a pie, they frequently get inedible crap.  Richard did some digging, found some people who were victimized by the scheme, and even got to try one of the awful pizzas — which look terrible — in the process.

Only a real crook would make a scam out of pizza.  Why, that’s unAmerican!

The Marathoner In The Family

Yesterday, Richard ran and finished his third marathon.  He’s now run marathons in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and San Antonio.

2013 San Antonio Rock n RollThis is all kind of strange to me, because I am not a runner.  In fact,  I’m more of an ambler.  I not only possess no meaningful athletic talent, I possess no meaningful athletic inclination, either.  I probably couldn’t run a half mile without collapsing by the side of the road, and Kish isn’t exactly out dashing around Columbus, either.

So how in the world did we end up with a son who has the determination and perseverance and stamina to run more than 26 miles at a pop — and train for it to boot? I frankly admit that I am awed at what Richard is doing.

So forgive me if I take a minute to say that I’m proud of my son, the marathoner.  Way to go, Richard!

Millionaire Pie, And Other Goodies

Richard visited the Texas State Fair recently and made a herculean effort to eat some of the inventive food items being offered there — from Millionaire Pie to Kool-Aid Pickles to Fernie’s Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly.  The results are both hilarious and mouth-watering and are recounted in detail on Richard’s Twitter feed — just scroll down past the picture of the bug-eyed Lenin till you get to the food shots and follow along.

If you are a Twitter person, you could do worse than to follow Richard — his feed is both informative and entertaining.

 

Business Blogger

Richard has started his new job at the San Antonio Express-News, and one of the first things he’s done is restart the blog “Shop Talk,” which will collect news about developments in the retail sector in San Antonio.  His first post on the blog is here.

A lot of newspaper work these days is in the social media sphere, on blogs, Twitter feeds, and other outlets that I can’t even begin to identify.  The reality is that many young people are getting their news electronically, and social media also allows news to be published immediately, rather than waiting until next morning’s newspaper.

The retail area, too, is one that is interesting to most people.  Many of us worked in retail at some point in our lives — as a server in a restaurant, as a cashier at the grocery store, or as a sales clerk at a clothing outlet — and virtually everyone shops at retail stores.  As a result of our significant exposure to retail shops, some questions are just intrinsically interesting, like — how much does shoplifting cost stores, and what are the costs, in reputation and potential liability, in pursuing an aggressive no-tolerance policy?  Are all employers requiring applicants to take drug tests and no-smoking pledges these days?  And is it true that clothing manufacturers, recognizing that Americans are becoming portly, have increased the sizes of clothing, so that what is now marked a 32 waist would have been a 34 waist three years ago?

If you’re interested in retail trends, the Shop Talk blog is worth following — as is Richard’s Twitter feed.

Just Call Him Tex

Richard’s last day at the Florida Times-Union was Friday.  He’s left Jacksonville and, as we speak, is driving across the southern rim of the United States, skirting the Gulf of Mexico.  After a stop in New Orleans to visit a friend he’ll make his way to San Antonio, Texas, where he will be starting a job with the San Antonio Express-News.

Richard enjoyed his job at the Times-Union and gained some great experience there — but the opportunity presented at the Express-News was just too good to pass up.  The career of a young journalist tends to be an itinerant one, where moves from one paper to another are common.  Already Richard has worked for four dailies, in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and San Antonio.  And his move back to San Antonio is a return trip, because he worked there several years ago as an intern.  Richard’s experience shows the value of internships, because the Express-News staff remembered him from his intern days and sought him out for this new position.

So it’s so long to Jacksonville, and hello again to hot and bustling San Antonio, where Richard will be doing special business reporting and investigative reporting.

Rail Renaissance

Richard has another really good piece in today’s Florida Times-UnionThis time it’s about the nation’s freight rail carriers and their “rail renaissance” — which in this case means their increasing profitability.

DSC04102One of the great things about this story is that it goes behind the upward trend in railroad profits, and stock prices, to try to figure out what forces are at play that produced the “rail renaissance.”  It turns out that there are a lot of them:  industry consolidation that has dramatically reduced the number of carriers over the past 70 years and thereby reduced rate competition, investments by the railroads that allow them to carry ever more freight, decreasing number of employees, with the decline in associated costs, and an infrastructure advantage over the nation’s highway system.

Now that I think of it, I’ve had several recent experiences driving through rural areas only to be stopped by a train that was stacked high with containers and seemed to go on forever.  For the railroads, those incredibly long container trains are engines of prosperity.

It makes you wonder:  if rail carriers have made a comeback, is there any chance that the passenger rail industry might similarly have its own “rail renaissance”?

26.2

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We proudly watched Richard run the Jacksonville Marathon today, on a muggy day that was densely fogged before the sunshine broke through to make for a hot last few miles. We tracked him as he progressed and cheered him on at mile 16, mile 18, mile 23, and then as he crossed the finish line on a high school track decorated with balloons.

It’s the first time I’ve watched a marathon, and it’s an amazing and impressive spectacle. I’ve got new respect for Richard, Mr. Jim McKeever, and other multiple-marathoners. I can’t imagine running 26.2 miles.