Friday, May 30, 2008

Fork Two & Three--Out to the Interstate--WATER!!!

Even though I went to Sidney, NE thinking that Cabela’s and the changes that they had helped to affect in the town were what I would mostly see, I was very pleasantly surprised by the other projects that the town has taken on to better themselves for many, many years into the future. These projects didn’t just happen on their own, but rather took dedicated, visionary leaders who understood the importance of constantly moving forward, because if you are standing still in today’s world, you are actually rapidly falling behind.

City manager Gary Person talked about the history of the town and the next big fork in the road that Sidney came to, “We were very much down in the dumps during the 70s and 80s. We’d lost our major employer when the Sioux Arm Depot closed their doors in 1967, then the oil industry played out in the area and the agricultural industry went through a real depression in the early 80s. We were feeling sorry for ourselves and hoping that some of those jobs we’d lost would come back.”

He went on, “Interstate 80 was built 2 miles south of the town. It was completed in 1973 but we didn’t decide to take infrastructure out there until 1988. Twice, the city council voted down spending the money to get water and sewer out there. We finally were able to put a plan together that cost us $4 million and got started out there with a truck stop and hotel. Shortly afterwards Cabela’s decided to put their first flagship store out there and then their corporate headquarters.”

Not that Cabela’s abandoned the downtown area. One of their major operations is still located there in a former retail big-box (not theirs) adjacent to the downtown. In addition they’ve helped to back the Main Street revitalization with a $200,000 challenge grant that allowed Megan McGown, head of the local Chamber and Main Street manager to expand, “We started with one retailer who redid their Coffee Corner in 2005 without any incentive. People saw what they did and the city set up the incentive program which Cabela’s doubled so that if someone spends $20,000 they get half of their investment back. We’ve got 22 approved for this project and already have 12 that are completed.”

The Sidney Main Street is a model that other towns should look at. It is going to be spectacular when completed!

I’m convinced that Sidney has recently completed another of those “Fork in the Road” projects. With only 13” of rain per year, western NE is a semi-arid area and from what I’ve seen, water is going to become the petroleum of this century. A $14 million new water field and distribution system has been built over the past three years. Gary Person told me, “We had to go 22 miles north to get into the Ogallala Aquifer. We had to go down 1,500 feet to get the quantity and quality of water that we needed. We laid a 36” water line to bring back here to Sidney.”

Sidney is a town looking forward, but the foundation laid in 1988 with the expansion out to the interstates has paid huge dividends. Over 2,500 people work out at that exit, as it has become THE PLACE to stop for the 8,000+ cars and trucks that pass by each day on I-80. Retail sales in the town have climbed from $46 million in 1990 to over $150 million today; lodging revenues have more than quadrupled from $1.1 million to $6.0 million; building permits have increased from $2.0 million to $16 million in 2007; and the town has gone from building 1 to 6 housing units/year in the late 80s to 40 to 60 today.

Sidney is a town on the move! I’m glad that they went down the right paths when they’ve come to critical forks in the road.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Fork One--Two Boys in Chappell

I was out in Sidney, NE to help them honor Dick, Mary and Jim Cabela who moved their business to Sidney from nearby Chappell, NE in 1968 when the business only had 15 employees. Today, Cabela’s Inc., The World’s Foremost Outfitter, has over 15,000 employees with about 2,500 of them located in their hometown. I had the thrill of a lifetime in getting to spend about an hour one-on-one with them interviewing them on their journey from a kitchen table startup into an incredible company. Even Governor Dave Heineman was in town for the festivities, awarding the three Cabelas the distinguished Admiral of the Navy for the state of Nebraska. Who knew that they even had a navy?

Gary Person, City Manager of Sidney and my tour guide of the town along with Megan McGown, head of the local chamber, told me of how Cabela’s came to Sidney, “John Deere had a regional distribution center here in town. It was a four story, obsolete building that was built right on the rails. When John Deere couldn’t get rid of the building, they donated it to the local hospital.”

At the luncheon celebration for the Cabelas, Gerald Matzke, who was on the hospital board at the time carried on that story, “When the hospital took that building from the John Deere Plow Company, we were roundly criticized on Main Street. People thought that we’d been given a building that we’d never ever be able to get rid of. After we’d sat on it for about a year, somebody heard about two boys over in Chappell who were looking to grow into a bigger building. Two of our local realtors went over to see them and they came over three times to look at it. After a lot of negotiations, we finally sold it to them for $1 per square foot or a total of $50,000 for the 50,000 sf building. We even financed it for them. They only had 15 or 16 employees at the time. We eventually bought a new X-Ray machine with the money we got from selling that building to them.”

Mary Cabela told me, “We didn’t know what we were going to do with all of that space. We thought that we would never, ever fill up that building but within two years it was full.”

Dick Cabela added, “It was like a gift for us getting that building from the hospital. Both Jim and I had gone to high school here and had a lot of contacts in Sidney. Moving here was a great decision.”

Jim Cabela talked about the origin of the company, “My grandfather was in the hardware business in Brainerd, NE and my father started a similar store in Chappell during the Great Depression. He expanded into furniture and my brother Jerry still runs the store there. Dick was running the furniture store and he and Mary were doing the mail order business on the side. When I got out of the military Dick asked me to start running it. We were sending out mimeographed catalogs at the time.”

His brother Dick added, “It was only a hobby at the time. We were taking baby steps. We had four young children at the time (they have nine today) and those kids had to eat, so I continued at the furniture store and we put everything we earned in the catalog business back into it. My Dad was our role model in building the business. He was always strong on customer service, honesty and treating the employees just like you would your customers. He always bent over backwards to be fair. We started out in fishing but quickly added hunting so that we had something to sell in the fall. Now the fall is our really big sales period.”

After the move to Sidney and an expansion to Kearney, NE for customer service operations, Cabela’s added their first retail store. Dick told me, “We had this warehouse in Kearney and we converted about 30,000 sf into a retail operation. Today we are about ½ retail and ½ catalog with the internet really having a positive impact.”

It wasn’t all straight uphill as Mary explained, “We tried to do a gift catalog selling all sorts of funny things like exploding golf balls. It bombed on us. We also tried catalogs aimed at golfing and cross country skiing, but they didn’t work for us.”

Today, Cabela’s operates out of 27 retail stores that are often the number one tourist attraction in many states in addition to their catalog operations. They produce 76 different catalogs each year, shipping over 120 million catalogs to every state in the country and over 120 different countries. In 2004 the company went public under the ‘CAB’ symbol on the New York Stock Exchange.

Going public was obviously a difficult decision, driven mainly by concerns for how to be able to continue the business due to estate tax concerns. Mary said, “It was the toughest decision that we ever made. It was like losing a baby.”

Dick added, “Before we were public, we had one lawyer on staff. Now we’ve got five. It makes the business a lot more complicated.”

Dick reminisced, “Those first years in business were our best times. Going out on the town was actually sitting at home and popping some popcorn.”

Dick and Mary are adding onto their original home in downtown Sidney, although it is quite an “addition”. The project started in 2000 and they hope to have it completed sometime this summer. Mary said, “We started out just wanting to add a trophy room onto the house, then we decided to gut our original house. We added a library, a gun room and all sorts of things into the addition.”

The “addition” will feature different animals that they’ve hunted on every continent in the world with their nine children and 22 grandchildren. My guess is that their 7 great-grandchildren will also learn to love the outdoors like Dick and Mary.

It was a wonderful day for me. I love talking with incredible entrepreneurs like Dick, Mary and Jim Cabela.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From Sinful to Sensational!--Taking Those Forks in the Road

Sidney, NE (population 6,282) in the far western part of the state, started out as a stop on the Oregon Trail, becoming an important strategic location for the first transcontinental Union Pacific. When gold was discovered in the nearby Black Hills virtually all of the supplies and returning gold flowed through Sidney. The town quickly earned the nickname of “Sinful” Sidney when over 80 saloons, numerous gambling houses, brothels and the “World’s First 24-Hour Theatre” sprouted up. The shortage of beds in the town necessitated having the Vaudeville theater open 24/7. I’m starting to make my way through the 688-page history of this wild time entitled “Lynchings, Legends and Lawlessness—the story of historical Sidney, Nebraska.”

From those wild days in the 1860s to 1880s Sidney slowed down into a farming (wheat) and cattle area, developing into a mini-regional town second only to Scottsbluff in the western panhandle of NE. The next big boom occurred during WWII when Sidney was chosen as the site for a massive munitions production and supply depot, The Sioux Army Depot, which eventually had 2,500 employees.

Oil and gas discoveries near Sidney turned the town into an oil boomtown in the early 50s. And, the construction of the Minuteman Missile System in the area in the 60s (37 silos in the county) also added greatly to the economy.

But the Army Depot closed, the oil played out and it doesn’t take many people to maintain missile silos built into the ground. And, Sidney would have probably slowly declined but for a couple of key decisions made by leaders in the community in 1968, which I was there to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of, and in 1988. I’ll have more on those key decisions over the next couple of days.

Today, Sidney has more people working in the town (6,400) than sleep there at night, which is an incredible distinction especially when you consider that the average in the USA is about 64%. I’ve only found about 6 towns in the entire country that can claim such a ratio.

I generally begin each talk citing examples of towns that come to “forks in the road”, make key decisions and then go down one fork or another, and Sidney is a great example of those forks in the road that are either taken or not. Fortunately for the people of Sidney today, leaders in the past decided to go down specific forks and the town prospered as a result.

Here’s a smattering of the things that I saw in this incredible town of 6,282, things that towns two, three and four times its size would love to have. They have a wonderful park system, beginnings of a massive trail system, a wonderful Main Street program, a new fishing pond and even a shooting park. Construction will get underway in June on a new $17 million high school. New subdivisions are being built and a drive through the community shows lots of economic activity.

Tomorrow, more on those key forks in the road that Sidney found and went down.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Class of One! Valedictorian!

One of my favorite weekend tasks is to read the many local newspapers that I now receive from around the country. Several places that I’ve toured and done talks continue to send me their local newspaper and I read them all. One of my favorites is the Crosby, ND Journal that is published by a local family with a love for their hometown.

Crosby is a town of 1,089 with an average age of 50.5 years (compared to a national average of 35.3) with over 1/3 of the town being over the age of 65. It sits just a stone’s-throw from the Canadian border and 30 miles east of MT in a very rural part of the USA. Crosby has fought its brain drain, recruiting in a high tech company from CA and continuing to try to reinvent itself, but it is an uphill battle and one of the challenges is how to find the kind of opportunities that attract back young grads.

The Journal did a special section on the local high school graduates, just like about every other newspaper that I’ve ever seen. This past week’s edition covered seven area high schools within a fifty mile radius of Crosby, all 86 grads. And, about 80% of them are headed onto college!

Grenora High School has only one graduate this year. Westby High School has three. Burke Central High School four.

A school is a special asset that most towns take for granted. My guess is that it has a more important place in Grenora, Westby and Burke. Losing those schools would be catastrophic but it has to be a special challenge to hold them together for classes of one, three and four.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ponca a Winner--Not a Surprise

David Letterman has his Top Ten list every night. I don’t, but if I had a Top Ten list of best ED groups that I’ve seen around the USA, Ponca City, OK would be on that list. I’m not the only one who thinks highly of them. Business Retention and Expansion International just named them the best business retention and expansion program of communities under 50,000 in North America.

Sophisticated CA transplant David Myers and good-old-Midwestern boy Tim Burg together do a great job of connecting with their local community and promoting Ponca City as THE place to locate. Ponca City was a one-horse town that has had to transform itself in the past several years.

E. W. Marland was a PA attorney who made and lost a fortune in the first oil rushes in PA at the turn of the 20th Century. Broke, he moved west, settling in Ponca City, making a second oil fortune which he merged into Conoco Oil, moving its headquarters to Ponca City. Even though Marland, who also served as a Congressman and Governor of OK, died in 1941 he is still revered in Ponca City for the impact that having Conoco headquartered there.

Conoco, now part of Conoco Phillips and headquartered in Houston, has been downsizing their operations in Ponca City for years, but unlike a lot of towns that might have just thrown up their hands and said, “that is the way it goes,” Ponca City decided to take a proactive approach to diversifying its economy.

David, Tim and the Ponca City Development group have proactively helped to create 1,800 new jobs in their town in the last two years. They put out a great weekly newsletter that keeps their stakeholders informed. Tell David or Tim to send it to you. You will be impressed.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Above or Below Line

Our guest speaker for the ECIDC Annual Meeting was Ed Morrison, an ED guru who is the founder of I-Open, publisher of EDPro weblog and policy advisor to the Purdue Center for Regional Development. A small group of us met with him in the afternoon before his talk where we discussed a number of ED issues with plans to begin “strategic doing” rather than just strategic planning.

He spoke of the need to stop the alarming increase in high school dropouts, citing that their lifetime earnings are $300,000 below someone with a high school degree. Unfortunately, even those with high school degrees aren’t necessarily going to be climbing the economic ladder but those without some basic skills learned in high school are really going to behind the eight ball for the rest of their life.

Ed showed a graphic of today’s economy, with 60% of the jobs above a very basic $10/hour level. However, he also showed that 60 to 70% of the candidates that we are putting into the labor market today are below that line in skills that are needed. That gap is alarming and growing.

My biggest concern from travelling around the country is the number of people that are reaching adulthood without absolutely necessary life-time skills. There appear to be plenty of jobs for those who have these skills but a shrinking number of jobs that qualify for those without such skills. Are you doing anything to turn this gap around in your community?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Make or Break Newspapers

Our regional ED group, composed of nine counties, holds their annual meeting every year in May, honoring a handful of outstanding groups and individuals who are making a difference and helping to positively transform their communities and the region. These awards, Business Ethics and Social Involvement (BESI), were given out this year to Jim Ryan, an outstanding volunteer in Marshall, IL; John Inyart, local business owner and mayor of Charleston, IL; and the Journal Gazette—Times Courier, the local newspaper in Mattoon and Charleston, IL.

Scott Lensink, President of Lake Land College, who nominated the Journal Gazette, said in his remarks, “The Journal Gazette and especially its publisher Carl Walworth have really helped to bring Mattoon and Charleston closer together.”

Having observed Mattoon and Charleston from 30 miles away over the past several decades, I couldn’t agree with Scott more. One of the problems that I’ve observed of sister cities like Mattoon and Charleston is that they spend way too much time fighting each other rather than trying to figure out how best to work together. The local newspaper, especially under the leadership of Carl Walworth has tirelessly championed a togetherness approach through such efforts as a quarterly leader’s breakfast for the entire county, a program to recognize young leadership in the county, a program to recognize volunteers and several other innovative programs.

Carl was a farm boy from rural Jasper County, IL who became a journalist and wasn’t necessarily the logical choice when the longtime publisher retired. However, under his leadership I’ve watched in awe as he has taken a very positive approach to reporting news and promoting the region.

The example of the transformation of the Journal Gazette led by Carl is a lesson that other local newspapers would do well to study if they hope to positively impact their region. Virtually anyone who is looking to move to a town (business, doctor, professional, etc.) is going to subscribe to the newspaper prior to making the decision to move. If the front page of the newspaper is filled with killings, muggings, etc. what do you think that their impression of the community is going to be? And, while those types of stories have to be reported, they don’t necessarily have to be on the front page like many newspapers do (If it bleeds…it leads!) but rather can be relegated to page four or six.

Carl understands the importance of positively impacting a community and was justly recognized at the ECIDC annual meeting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Extreme Entrepreneurs

The keynoters for Gen E’s Student Business Showcase were Sheena Lindahl and Michael Simmons, Millennial Entrepreneurs, who started and run Extreme Entrepreneurship Education and are authors of “The Student Success Manifesto” and “All or Nothing, Now or Never”.

The two are very energetic evangelists for student entrepreneurism, who travel around the USA in a bright red and black Extreme Entrepreneurism bus. They have a message that obviously connects with young people.

Michael related to them, “80% of the millionaires in this country are entrepreneurs. The founders of Google don’t make millions in salary but rather work for only $1 per year. However, their stock is worth $18 billion.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Generation E Showcase

For several years I’ve been researching and visiting different groups that are trying to take an entrepreneurial curriculum to high school students. The best that I’ve found so far is in MI where the Generation E Institute has developed a curriculum for high school and middle school students, implementing it in several MI schools. Last week they held their Third Annual Student Business Showcase to highlight the businesses that their students are required to start during their study of entrepreneurism. Over 100 students from a dozen schools took part in the Showcase and I had a great time seeing the products that they had developed and were selling. It almost felt like Halloween as I filled up a couple of bags of goodies to take home.

Here were some of the companies/ideas that caught my eye at the event:

Middle Schools

Garden of Beadin—Ellie Hall & Taylor Westlake--$1000 prize winner—selling a wide array of necklaces and bracelets

Pencil Pops—Esther Mawj--$500 prize winner—suckers on top of colored pencils

Winter Hats—Naomi Mawi--$500 prize winner—Burmese hats

Duck Tape Wallets—Jacob Wilson—hard to believe what you can do with duct tape!

High Schools, Career Centers & Young Adult Programs

Tip Stick Pretzel Company—Haley DePew & Jacquelynn Magoes—Delicious toppings on pretzels—A winner at my house!

Expressions—Tia Crabill—Personalized Calendars

JuJus Charms—Andrew Montgomery & Edith Torrico—Charms for your cell phones—who knew?

Aquatics—Elena Bergstresser & Matt Jones—Best Business Plan Winner—Sold a very unique self contained fish in a beta bowl

Pandora’s Box—Niko Elliott—Selling a black plexiglass box to produce mushrooms

Parsley Patch—Gabrielle Taylor & Ashley Wade—Manufacture and package seasonings for meal preparations

FLC Wooden Rose—Bei he & Cindy Huynh—$1000 prize winner--Colorful roses with a fragrance of your choice

Glow with the Flow Black Light Dance—Evan Gwillim & Julius Harris—Put on a black light dance at their school

Sweet’s Today, Hope for Tomorrow—Nicole Evans—Candy bouquets and gumball candy jars

Cheryl Peters and Doug Woodard do an excellent job of running these programs. In the five years that they’ve been running Gen E, they’ve developed a hands-on, business starting program and have educated over 50 MI teachers on the importance of entrepreneurism. Both have combined an educational and entrepreneurial experience into a wonderful program that I’m convinced more schools and towns should be implementing. Contact them if you want to transform your community entrepreneurially.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Premiumization of Chocolate--Stepping it Up

One of the top ten trends that I identified in January for 2008 was the premiumization of products. Here is what I wrote, “Premiumization—It started with coffee but has been embraced in many other products like honey, chocolate, vodka, cheese, breweries and others.”

I’ve discovered a company that is carrying this idea of premiumization to a new level. Sir Hans Sloane, in England, has clients sit down with its master chocolatier, Bill McCarrick, to discover which types and flavors of chocolate they enjoy most. Just as a master vintner might help a wine connoisseur stock their wine cellar, Sir Hans Sloane is helping them to determine which chocolates they are going to like best.

Don’t you think that will help them to build life-long customers?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Growing Again

Rick Killion edits and publishes Prairie Business, the premier business magazine in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Each monthly issue includes wonderful stories about companies and communities that are succeeding in this part of the USA. This past month’s 62 pages featured the diversity of the architecture and design of new buildings in the region.

Killion’s monthly column celebrated the fact that the population decline in ND appears to be turning around. As he says, “North Dakota’s population increased again, making it three years out of the last four for an addition of more than 7,000 people from the low of 632,620 recorded in 2003.”

He goes on, “This most recent population gain matches the growth in good jobs in the state, with an increase in the total workforce of about 6,500 per year and average of 2,700 jobs being filled each year by workers under the age of 35.”

The last part of his quote is particularly important because parts of ND have some of the oldest populations in the country and the state has to replace the older workers who are going to be retiring in the next decade.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

NAIOP Take-Homes

As I mentioned on Friday, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) has been the absolute best source of knowledge for someone who didn’t have any experience when I started down the path of building manufacturing and high tech facilities in rural America. Fortunately, those with more experience from urban areas have been very generous in their assistance over the years and I will always be indebted to NAIOP. The organization was also the one that took a chance on me and published BoomtownUSA.

The mood at NAIOP was probably as subdued as I can remember at any NAIOP event, with many concerned about the long term impacts of the meltdown in the credit markets over the past nine months. However, the general consensus was that these problems would be behind us by later this year or early in 2009.

USA infrastructure is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world and we are not spending the funds needed to keep us world class. We are spending about 3% of our GDP on infrastructure compared to 10% in Japan and 8% in China. We are $1.6 Trillion behind, the Highway Trust fund will be bankrupt by next year and we don’t seem to have the political will to correct.

Mark Doutzer, a very entertaining economist from Texas A & M University, gave a very sobering talk about changes occurring in Washington and the impact that they will have upon the USA, “The worst risk that we face in the USA is Congress trying to fix everything. We are migrating from a land of opportunity to a land of entitlement.”

Another observation that looks like it will be hotly debated in the presidential campaign, “If we change the Capital Gains Tax from 15% to 24% it will cut the value of stocks and real estate by 11% overnight!”

Stuart Rothenberg, Managing Director of Goldman Sachs, related some of the changes that have occurred in their investment thinking since the credit meltdown, “A year ago we were looking at deals in the mezzanine arena where we were helping to take 4% equity up to 13%, getting LIBOR + 200 to 225 bp and maybe 65 bp in upfront fees. Now we are helping to take deals from 25% equity to 40% equity, getting paid LIBOR + 850 bp with 150 to 200 bp upfront and with LIBOR floors. We are cleaning up since there is no debt in the market.”

My summary from these talks is that we are going to very quickly come out of this downturn which I still refuse to call a recession since we continue to have positive GDP growth of around 0.5% for the past two quarters (a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth). The credit problems of Wall Street will be history within a year and have not had the same impact on Main Street. In fact Main Street has probably benefited from the much lower interest rates.

The USA economy has always climbed a “wall of worry” and probably always will. We are in one of those times but will be quickly through it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

America on Sale!

Betinha and I just love to visit New York City and while she could probably be enticed to live there, it would be the last place that I would want to live. There is an incredible vibrancy to the city and we spent hours just roaming the streets of the city.

Two things that impressed us both about this visit were the number of foreigners that were here and the amount of shopping that everyone seemed to be doing. There were lines at every checkout and while everyone talks about how the credit meltdown impacted NYC as much as anywhere, you sure couldn’t tell it at the theaters, restaurants or stores.

The city has always attracted people from all over the world, but the falling dollar has probably enticed even more of them to come here for the bargains. Foreigners spent $120 billion in the USA last year and are expected to spend even more in 2008. This compares to a peak of $100 billion in 2000 and a low of $80 billion in 2003 as fears of another 9/11 kept many at home. Canadians are our most frequent visitors, followed by guests from Mexico, Britain, Japan and Germany. But, the fastest-growing increase in visitors is coming from India, France, Venezuela, Brazil and Spain. Chinese visitors will be in this classification soon.

The fall in the value of the dollar makes our goods less expensive to foreigners even as it makes our imports more so. Over time the dollar rises and falls in value. We saw a similar fall in value in the 70s and 80s and there was great concern then that the Arabs (70s) and Japanese (80s) would end up owning America. It didn’t happen then and I’m convinced that it won’t happen now. Meanwhile our farmers, equipment manufacturers and others are reaping the benefits of increased export values from the value of the dollar.

How could this increase in foreign visitors impact rural areas? In talking with several foreigners over the years, I’m convinced that some of them are looking for very unique experiences here and would love to have authentic American experiences. Surely some rural region can figure out how to package a number of such experiences like working on a farm/ranch. If you know of an area that is doing this, please let me know what they have done.

Friday, May 09, 2008

'T' on our Forehead

Betinha, Dean Bingham (Agracel president) and I were in NYC for a National Association of Industrial & Office Properties (NAIOP) conference. It is a great opportunity to exchange and learn what others in the industrial real estate market are facing and the one organization that has helped me to learn what to do/not do. Just a couple of those ideas have more than paid for ALL of the future NAIOP conferences that I could possibly attend.

The first night, prior to the conference, my wife and I went to an upscale fresh fish restaurant near Time Square. As we were walking back to our hotel, someone approached us and asked, “Hey, how would you like to go see some stand-up comics at one of the best clubs in the City? The next show starts in 20 minutes and it is only a couple of blocks from here.”

The guy handed us a coupon that gave us ½ off. A block later another person approached us with the same message. Betinha asked me, “Do you think we’ve got a T on our forehead or something else?”

“Maybe it’s just the straw in our hair.”

We trekked to the club and were pleasantly surprised that this was not just a NYC club but actually was named The World Stand-up Comedy Club! Wow!!! The World!! This was going to be good!

We noticed that there were about 30 people in the club as we paid our $10 cover and were informed that there was also a 2 drink minimum at from $5 to $9/drink. We each got a beer at the bar and the waitress told us not to worry, because she would find us later in the theater. Wow! This young lady has got quite a memory.

A few minutes later the usher opened the doors and announced that we could take our seats. Betinha and got right in line and filed in, getting the choice seats a couple of rows from the front. Her theory is that you never want to sit in the front row at an event like this, because you are going to be an easy target of the comedian. A couple of minutes later a second couple strolled in and the show started. Later a third couple and two women filed in, swelling the audience to 8. The waitress didn’t seem to have any trouble locating us for our second beer.

Sitting three rows back didn’t seem to jive with my wife’s theory. When the other couples are from CA, Quebec and Slovakia and you admit that you are from Effingham (when you grow up with a town name, you don’t always realize how other people might find it funny), there seemed to be a much bigger T on your forehead. Although the Slovakians helped to increase the audience dramatically, the fact that they couldn’t understand the language didn’t result in even one laugh from them. I, on the other hand, having had to give some early talks to as few as 4 or 6 people, gave each one of the comedians the benefit of the doubt and continued to embarrass my wife with my belly laughs. Later one of the comedians offered to hire me as his manager and another whispered as she left the stage, “Thanks so much for laughing!”

“Oh there’s the guy that gave us the first coupon and there’s the second one!” They were both also doubling as comedians. It was definitely a bootstrap operation but we ended up having a good time.

NYC is a wonderful place to visit. There is such diversity and unique things to do. Didn’t say I want to live here, though.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Global Warming as Campagin Issue

One of the surprises for me of the current presidential campaign is how little the issue of global warming is in the campaign. The issue is highlighted in much of the elite media especially on CNN. However, it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue on the campaign trail and is seldom raised in Q & A sessions after my talks. Local papers, which I religiously read, seldom have anything but wire service articles about the issue.

The candidates for President seldom talk about global warming. In the recent PA primary global warming was such a peripheral issue that exit pollsters didn’t even bother to question voters’ attitudes about it.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up the S. F. Chronicle and found that the entire front section of the paper was filled with articles on the issue. On the front page was this headline, “Shiver of Worry in Wine Country”. Inside articles were “Coal’s comeback raises alarms;” “Europeans turning backs on cars;” “Greenhouse gases growing faster than ever, report says;” and “Crisis faces the Andes as glaciers melt.” Out of the 21 major articles in that section of the paper, one out of four was devoted in some way to climate change.

Global warming seems to be a much bigger issue in SF than what I’m seeing in my tours around the country. I think it would be helpful if the candidates and city dwellers spent a bit of time in places like Modoc County in NE CA.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bud or Weed? Big or Small?

Who knew that someone named Abner Weed, a timber baron who opened a lumber mill and named the town for himself, would set off a controversy with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Federal Government? The town which sits along I-5 in northern CA is the most recognized name along the interstate according to Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff.

I’ve been to Weed several times in the past six months and found it to be a wonderfully quaint town with a historical downtown. It also is the site that a Milwaukee craft brewer, Vaune Dillmann, decided to start Mt. Shasta Brewery in 1999, after cleaning up a badly contaminated industrial site. His brews, Abner Weed Amber Ale, Lemurian Lager; Mountain High IPA, Shastafarian Porter; and Weed Golden Ale all promote the fact that they are made with 100% Pure Mt. Shasta Spring Water.

It was the last brew, Weed Golden Ale that got Dillmann in trouble with the Feds which is threatening to impose fines and/or sanctions against the brewer for promoting a beer named Weed with bottle caps that say Try Legal Weed. Evidently, they feel that the bottle caps tell consumers to support an illegal drug.

Dillmann feels that he is being unfairly singled out and that if the Feds wanted to go after someone they should go after Anheuser-Busch for their use of the word “Bud”, another name for marijuana, rather than a little brewer like him.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

High Gas Prices Impact

In my travels through the very remotest areas of CA, I started to give some thought to the impact that increasingly high gasoline prices are going to have upon places like Modoc County. It is three hours to a reasonably sized town (Redding, CA; Medford, OR; or Reno, NV) and rapidly escalating gasoline prices are making it increasingly expensive to make what used to be considered fairly routine trips for people in the county.

I almost paid $4.00/gallon ($3.999 to be exact) and gas prices over the pass in Cedarville were $4.12/gallon and $4.68/gallon for diesel.

Jim Brown who runs the JNR Hotel in Cedarville told me, “I’ve seen my business go down by one-half primarily due to high gas prices.”

Fortunately, the higher end Surprise Valley Hot Springs hasn’t seen much of an impact, although the local manager Nicki Mulnholland told me, “We’re becoming much more concerned as prices go over $4 and the impact it has upon tourism.”

Remote places like Modoc County are probably going to feel the impact first. It could have some devastating ramifications for the most remote areas. I hope that they are able to survive and find ways to prosper.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Modoc County, CA (population 9,197) is rated as the only county in the state as “remote”. It is in the NE corner of the state with OR to the north and NV to the east. With 3,944 square miles, its population density of 2.3 per square mile makes it one of the lowest in the USA.

I had a wonderful 3 hour drive through incredible mountains and valleys from Redding to Alturas, the county seat for Modoc. Amee Albrecht, head of the Modoc County Employment Center, which brought me in for the talk/tour told me prior to the drive, “Be careful because we can get all four seasons in just one day!” She was right as I drove from balmy, sunny weather through rain, snow and hail. At one point hail was pounding my car, even as the sun was brightly shining in the west.

I got an indication of how rural the county was when the local newspapers lead story was, “Spring drive…Tips for driving through cattle drives.” The second paragraph is a classic, “Some of us never imagined we’d one day live in an area where a “traffic jam” involved huge animals with four hooves rather than four tires.”

Amee and another dozen passionate, committed citizens gave me a wonderful tour of Alturas (population 2,898) and Cedarville (population 600), driving me through the same pass (6,300’ altitude) that separates the Sierras from the Cascades and which was part of the original Oregon Trail. Some of the wagon wheel ruts are still visible today in the rugged terrain.

Laura Williams, who heads up the local Forest Service, told me of the importance that the Federal Government plays in the local economy, “We control over 1.5 million acres in this county which is 72% of the total land area in the county. The county gets all of the receipts from timber sales but the spotted owl changed that greatly. Today there is only one large mill operating in the entire county.”

Unfortunately, Washington DC often doesn’t understand how changes in policy can dramatically impact places like Modoc County. In 2001, DC didn’t allow ANY timber to be harvested, not one log! Last year 10 million board feet were harvested and one of the county supervisors on the bus told me that they figured that 15 million board feet per year could sustainably be harvest each year for an indefinite period of time.

Remote often means forgotten. The wonderful people that I met in Modoc County deserve much better.

Friday, May 02, 2008

An American Success Story

On April 15th I wrote about a ribbon cutting we held in Ripley, MS for three empty buildings we purchased that had been used by a furniture manufacturer there. Our plan with this purchase is to retrofit the buildings, take care of delayed maintenance and promote them to other manufacturers as an economical way to start new operations. The high percentage of manufacturing workers in the county, 39.5%, is an added bonus as is the close proximity (<30 minutes) to the new Toyota plant being built in nearby Tupelo, MS.

On Tuesday the Tippah County Development Foundation held a ribbon cutting for the first success with these buildings. We sold one of them, a 230,000 sf plant to Carolina Accents, which plans to create 125 new jobs in Ripley.

The owner of Carolina Accents is Daniel Lim who moved to the USA in early 1980s with his wife Janet. Their first job was cleaning motel rooms for $1.00/day in addition to being able to board there. The two saved their money (you’ve got to clean a lot of rooms to save much!) so that Daniel could attend the University of North Carolina to study electrical engineering. While at UNC he cooped at a local utility company and later worked there for six years.

In the early 1990’s, when the U. S. was just emerging from one of its few recessions, Lim and his wife started a company to import goods from China, reinvesting their profits back into the business. Today their SV International which owns Carolina Accents has plants in China, Malaysia, Vietnam, NC and MS. The Business Journal of Greensboro, NC ranked it as the fastest growing company in the Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point region of NC.

Such growth doesn’t happen by accident. It takes creativity and hard work. And it shows that the American Dream is still alive and well. I’m thrilled that he is our first success with refocusing these buildings into new uses.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


It really was a surprise when we drove up to the Surprise Valley Hot Springs, a wonderful retreat that sits at the center of the valley surrounded by the Warner Mountains and Nevada’s Hays Range. It doesn’t get much more secluded than this.

Manager Nicki Mulnholland told me, “The resort was started by Great Grandpa Rose who bought the hot spring dotted property in the 1950s and began building a hotel on the site. Grandpa Rose, 91, still lives on the property.” He is rumored to love cherry turnovers.

Each of their 17 rooms has a different theme to it ranging from the Cape Cottage Suite to the Out of Africa. One of their favorite promotions is the Fly-N-Soak Package aimed at private pilots who can fly into the nearby Cedarville Airport (elevation 4,623’—runway 4,415’ asphalted and lighted), get a complimentary car and stay at the Springs. With the new Very Light Jets (VLJ) that I’ve written extensively about, the Bay Area will be less than an hour from a wonderfully relaxing soaking.