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Hungry world needs corn, not ethanol PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 August 2012 16:28

With the corn crop devastated by drought, threatening food price spikes and shortages, America’s corn-hungry ethanol mandate must be lifted

In the best of corn-growing times, America’s ethanol mandate is a subsidy that props up an unsustainable industry whose existence is essentially meaningless to the economy and the environment.

    In one of the worst of times in agriculture in the last half century, a time of historic drought when a corn crop devastated by conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl will be the smallest in many years, the corn ethanol requirement is morally and economically indefensible and must be suspended if not done away with altogether.

    The Environmental Protection Agency can do that. The longer it waits, the more it inflicts pain on American consumers and suffering people in the world’s hunger belts.

    The drought of 2012 underscores what should have been obvious all along: A society that turns food into fuel for automobiles has its priorities confused.

    Less than a quarter of the corn crop in the 18 most important corn-producing states is in good condition, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The world will have to get by with 39 million fewer tons of corn this year, the USDA estimated, blaming the U.S. production shortfall for 75% of that shortage.

    In spite of that, enough corn to make 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol will have to be subtracted from the food supply this year under the terms of the U.S. ethanol mandate. The Wall Street Journal reported that more corn is now being used for engine fuel than for livestock feed.

    The United Nations is urging the U.S. to suspend the ethanol mandate to avert a crisis in world food prices that would hamper efforts to provide famine relief.

    In the United States, the corn shortage aggravated by ethanol production will not be a crisis, but it will certainly be a burden on consumers. The price of corn has tripled since 2005, and inevitable further increases are expected to push up the cost of a plethora of food products and meat.

    All to keep ethanol producers churning out a product for which there is no demand and from which there is no benefit.

    The stated purposes of the ethanol mandate are to reduce dependence on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gases. It fails both ways.

    Even though it consumes billions of bushels of corn needed for food, it accounts for less than 1% of the world’s fuel use. (Under EPA  rules, gasoline can contain up to 15% ethanol.) Studies have shown that it takes more energy to produce ethanol (including the greenhouse-gas-producing petroleum needed to till, fertilize, ship and process the corn and move ethanol to the market) than it yields as engine fuel.

    The mandate does further environmental damage by promoting excessive use of chemical fertilizers that degrade the soil and encouraging the conversion of woodland to crop-producing fields, resulting in accelerated erosion of topsoil.

     Biomass fuel from non-food vegetation, produced mostly outside of the United States, could fulfill some of ethanol’s promise, but tariffs designed to protect the corn ethanol industry keep it out of reach of Americans.    

    The point has been reached where ethanol’s reason for existence is reduced to supporting the ethanol-producing industry that was created by the mandate and is protected by an influential lobby and a compliant Congress.

    The one tiny, positive feature of the mandate, which is named the Renewable Fuels Standard, is that within its fine print is a provision that permits the EPA to suspend the ethanol production requirement if it is deemed to cause serious economic harm.

    Forcing up the price of food surely constitutes economic harm. The EPA, pushed by President Obama if necessary, should use its power to temporarily disable the mandate.

    Then Congress should get to work to make it go away forever. Ending the wasting of food to power motor vehicles ought to be reason enough to stop the ethanol folly, but those needing another rationale might find it in the fact that this is a perfect example of government manipulation of the free market gone bad.

Caution signs on the road to retail glory PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 August 2012 17:26

The prospect of an enormous commercial operation running 24-7 will secure Grafton’s title as a retail showcase, but who benefits?

“I see this contributing to Grafton as a retail showcase in Ozaukee County.”

    Kathleen Schilling, director of Ozaukee Economic Development, certainly got that right in her comment to Ozaukee Press about plans for a Meijer store in Grafton.

    Already a showcase, Grafton is a bona fide retail phenomenon—a small village that lures shoppers off the freeway with a sprawling extravaganza of big-name big-box stores. Now its officials seem eager to approve a “supercenter” that would be the biggest of all the Grafton big-boxes.

    This is a good time, before the village government gives that development the blessings it needs to proceed, to ask: What is the goal here? Is it to make Grafton an even more impressive retail showcase and claim the bragging rights that go with that distinction? Or is it to foster reasonable economic growth that makes life better for the residents of Grafton? If it’s the latter, just how will the Meijer development make that happen?

    The answers matter because the Meijer grocery/department store could have an impact as outsized as its statistics. It would be the largest commercial building in the village, measuring 191,352 square feet, or 4.4 acres. A parking lot for 683 vehicles would cover many more acres. There would be rows of gas pumps and a convenience store. The whole complex would be open for business 24 hours a day everyday.

    It was evident at a recent public hearing before the Plan Commission that village officials find much to like in the Meijer development. For one thing, the proposal fits well in the village’s master plan; the 33-acre site just south of the Home Depot store is earmarked for freeway exchange business.

    For another, Meijer, with 200 stores in five states, has a sterling reputation as a high-quality retailer whose customers seem to love it (an impression supported by praise from a number of people at the public hearing).

    Yet there are also ramifications of the development that should worry officials, including the fact that the flood of customer vehicles and trucks supplying the megastore will add significant congestion to roads and intersections that are already stressed by heavy traffic.

    The effects will be particularly burdensome for the residents of the nearby Hunters Crossing subdivision, who will also have to put up with the noise and lighting of an around-the-clock operation.

    Village officials need to take a clear-eyed look at the economic benefits of the development. The valuation increase will be a boon, of course. On the other hand, the store will hardly be a major employer; the full-time and part-time workforce is expected to eventually reach 62.

    If nothing else, the sheer size of the development—the biggest commercial development in village history—ought to serve as a caution sign Grafton’s elected representatives should not ignore.

    The development looks out of scale with the community. For in spite of its spectacular east-side commercial development, Grafton still functions like the small village it is. Like its neighboring communities, it has recently had trouble paying for services and has had to cut back. Taxes levied for municipal purposes are roughly the same as communities that aren’t retail showcases.           

    The Grafton police force, which could expect significant new demands with the opening of a massive 24/7 retail operation, needs more manpower, but the village has been unable to authorize hiring because of funding constraints. Only with a newly approved federal grant will the department be able to start to meet its needs by hiring one additional officer.    

    And even as it considers adding a building measured in acres the village is still trying to get by with an all-volunteer fire department. When that changes, as it must as soon as possible, fire department operation costs borne by taxpayers will soar.

    Meanwhile, Grafton’s downtown, the traditional heart of the village, is struggling.

    There is no question that the Meijer supercenter would be a coup for Grafton that would be a dazzling enhancement of its status as a retail showcase.

    Does that make it a good thing for the people of Grafton?

A fair wind fills Port’s sails PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 16:02

Three developments that came out of the blue have the downtown poised for economic rebirth after years of struggling

    Restoring the economy of a small-town downtown sometimes resembles a sailing voyage. The vessel has to tack into strong head winds and progress is discouragingly slow. But then the wind shifts and blows fresh from astern and the vessel leaps forward toward its goal.

    Port Washington’s downtown has the wind at its back at the moment, thanks to sudden and unexpected developments concerning three landmark buildings.

    The announcement of the planned purchase and remodeling of the Lueptow building, the gift of $1 million to the Port Washington Historical Society to buy and restore the Businessmen’s Club building and the imminent opening of a Duluth Trading Co. retail store in the Smith Bros. building add up to a gale of good news.

    The buyer of the enormous Lueptow edifice, Wall Street financial executive and former Port Washington resident Daniel Ewig, has the vision and the means to bring viable retail businesses to the building’s street level and ensure the continuing downtown presence of a technology company that occupies parts of the building. Moreover, he will strike a needed blow for city aesthetics by restoring the facade to its original dignified design and razing a long-vacant house behind the building.

    The vast Duluth store, to open early autumn,  fills a vacancy that has vexed the city since the landmark Smith Bros. Fish Shanty restaurant closed several years ago and, more important, offers the prospect of a lasting retail anchor. Duluth is a successful catalog and online clothing marketer and is in for the long haul.

    The museum the Historical Society will create in the Businessmen’s Club building with the million-dollar gift from an anonymous donor will not be a commercial enterprise, of course, but it will be a spur to downtown business nonetheless. The museum will be a tourist attraction, and the purchase of the decaying structure from the owner of the adjacent, connected M&I Bank building gives him more flexibility to redevelop that property.

    There’s a big serendipity factor in these developments—they sort of came out of the blue—but that is not to say Port does not deserve them. On the contrary, no community has worked harder than Port Washington to bring commercial life back to a downtown that once teemed with shoppers supporting retail businesses that filled every Franklin Street storefront. It has earned a favorable wind shift.

    Starting with the Business Improvement District, formed before the turn of the (21st) century and supported by financial contributions from downtown property owners, which morphed into the Port Washington Main Street program, bolstered by Tourism Council marketing that has brought a steadily increasing flow of visitors to the city, and abetted by the Chamber of Commerce, Port Washington has fought back from a dismal time when it seemed the downtown had no commercial future.

    The battle is not close to being won, as the still too numerous vacant commercial spaces attest. But the signs, even beyond the big three mentioned above, are hopeful, none more so than the spirit shown by the volunteers recruited by Main Street to organize downtown events. Thanks to them, the Community Street Festival, Ladies Night Out, the Maritime Heritage Festival and other events not only give residents and visitors a good time, but showcase the downtown as the delightful place it is, worth repeated visits.

    A few grizzled veterans of the downtown wars wistfully recall a time when there were so many shoppers in town on Friday nights that a police officer had to direct traffic at Franklin and Main.

    That’s warm and fuzzy history that isn’t likely to be repeated—those were pre-mall, pre-freeway days when Port Washington was a comprehensive commercial center serving a large trade area. Now the downtown is on the cusp of making new history—with a renaissance as a city center enlivened by an eclectic  assortment of shops and restaurants, radiating small-town friendliness, historical character and maritime ambience.

    A fair wind indeed.

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