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May 19, 2007

Timber counties declare PERS emergency

Unwilling to tackle crushing labor benefit costs like PERS, the Curry County Board of Commissioners plans to declare an emergency on Monday, then start sending layoff notices to every essential county employee by the end of next week. Tuesday, county voters defeated a PERS tax increase by a 2-1 margin. Non-essential employees will be spared. "Except for the Coast Guard, we won't have any protection," Commissioner Lucie La Bonté said Friday. "There will be no protection coming over the California border."

Commissioner Marlyn Schafer said at least five counties planned to issue an emergency declaration on Monday.

"At least five counties, maybe more," Schafer said. "The AOC (Association of Oregon Counties) is talking to the governor to let him know."

La Bonté said the idea is to get the message to the governor and the president that Oregon counties that have been counting on timber funds are hurting.

"It could be very serious," La Bonté said. "Especially being in a coastal area like this. It could be very bad."

Besides Curry County, tax measures were also defeated in Coos, Jackson, Josephine and Lane counties in Tuesday's special election. Those tax measures were meant to offset the loss of federal funding from the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act of 2000, the county payments program.

La Bonté said the declaration was to draw the attention of the president and Congress to the fact it is an emergency.

"We're getting the message, especially from the president, they don't believe this is an emergency. We're hoping this will draw a little more attention," La Bonté said.

Curry County drew up an emergency budget at the same time it was working up a regular budget for the county for next year. That budget calls for slashing all county departments funded through the county's general fund. And since the sheriff's department gets almost half that fund, it calls for taking all patrol cars off the road.

"We're hoping if there's a situation, we can call in the National Guard," La Bonté said. "Now, there's only three state troopers in the county, a small police force in Brookings, a smaller one in Gold Beach and even smaller one in Port Orford."

Although layoff notices are expected to go out by the end of next week, most of those jobs won't be cut until July 1, the start of the county's fiscal year.

"Yesterday, Josephine County laid off 125 people," La Bonté said. "I also understand that Jackson County and Lane County are laying off."

La Bonté said that layoff notices must go out soon because of the bumping process by the unions.

"I'm hearing locally folks are getting ready to move out of town," she said.

Schafer, the chair of the county commission, said the commission will begin discussions on slashing the budget in a work session Monday afternoon. Then budget cut meetings will be held the rest of the week, starting Tuesday when department heads will be invited to meet with the commission.

"There's no structure for the meetings next week," Schafer said.

She said she sent a number of questions to the department heads who are funded through the general fund.

"We are not in balance and further cuts will be needed, so think specifically about how you will defend the positions you have," the letter said.

"It will take some creative thinking and some more sacrifices as we attempt to balance this budget," it continued.

"Several things to think about:

"If we get one year of federal money, what do we do?

"If we get the Widen scenario how should we manage the money for the next five years?

"Do we put something on the ballot again?

"Do we even try for a Public Safety District in light of the vote?

"If you can think of some rules or deadlines that the state could change that could save money in your department, bring them.

"Do we give Health and Human Services back to the state?

"Do we immediately move all county services to the central complex? (Home Health/Hospice would not be asked to do this.)

"When do we give layoff notices? There will be union bumping."

Schafer said she doesn't like to make decisions that would cause a domino effect.

"It looks like the only thing we have to work with is the budgets in the general fund," she said. "We have $3,199,277 to work with, to do all the mandated services, pay unemployment and having a cash carry-over until next November. We have to pay bills until we get taxes in November."

Schafer said that it looks like the commission must cut another $842,233 from the emergency budget already approved.

She said services get cut on July 1.

"There may be some sooner as people quit, cash in their vacations if they have any, and leave," she said. "There will be a lot of bumping in both unions."

She said one problem is a clause in the Teamsters Union contract that was added to their contract years ago.

"We have a 15-year clause," she said. "We have a lot of people in our sheriff's department that have worked here more than 15 years."

Under that clause, officers with 15 years service can bump employees with less time in any section of the department, including corrections and 911, even when they are not certified for the job.

"They'll have to go for five weeks of training to be certified," she said. "We'll have to hope nobody gets sick (while they're taking their training),"she said.

"We have to have a balanced budget to present in June to the Budget Committee," Schafer said. "We'll probably need two budgets again.

"If we do get one-year funding from Congress, what do we reinstate for a year? We'll have to put together a list of what we would add back in if we got that year."

La Bonté said there is a chance the county could get something from Washington.

"We're hearing there will be a bill on the president's desk by Memorial Day," she said.

"Congressman (Peter) DeFazio yesterday was supportive about getting something from Congress," she said. "He was a county commissioner. He understands what we're going through."

In Josephine County, layoff notices were sent this week to 42 from the sheriff's office, 28 from juvenile justice, 11 from the District Attorney's office, with the balance from throughout the county. The layoffs will be effective May 31. Beginning June 1, there will be no sheriff's patrol in Josephine County.

In Jackson County, the county's 15 libraries will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future.

Coos County officials have already cut 77 positions, including 39 from the sheriff's department.

Lane County officials are waiting until the last minute but without timber revenues the county expects to cut $60 million from its budget, cutting about a third from the general fund and 50 percent from public works and roads department, and 260 employees.


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John Edwards, Pride of the Caymans

Let us say right up front that it's terrific that John Edwards lives in a country where he can lose an election and still land a $480,000 part-time job as a consultant to an investment firm that keeps its hedge funds in the Cayman Islands as a tax shelter for its clients. This truly is the land of opportunity.

We're also encouraged to hear that, according to the former Senator's spokesman, "John Edwards is running for President to give every American the opportunities that he's had." While there may not be enough half-a-million-dollar-a-year part-time consulting gigs to go around just yet, the hedge fund industry is growing. And there's always private equity if you find yourself, as Mr. Edwards described his 2005 circumstance, making $40,000 a year at an antipoverty think tank and wanting to learn something about "capital markets." Thus did he turn, in his time of need, to Fortress Investment Group LLC, pride of the Caymans.

It would also be churlish to repeat the by now tired line about which of his "Two Americas" Mr. Edwards lives in -- notwithstanding his $30 million in assets, about $16 million of which is invested in Fortress. And in any case, no one should have to apologize for his wealth and success.

That said, we can understand why the former Senator's campaign wants to change the subject. Mr. Edwards has campaigned, both in 2004 and now, against the use of offshore tax shelters, the supposed rising tide of U.S. inequality and the plight of the American worker. Mr. Edwards' employment at an investment firm that headquarters most of its hedge and private equity funds in one of the world's most notorious tax shelters underscores all of those themes -- albeit not quite in the way the Edwards campaign has chosen to emphasize.

Mr. Edwards did tell the Associated Press that he took the job not merely to make money, but also to learn about the relationship between the capital markets and poverty. How refreshing it would have been, then, for Mr. Edwards to have emerged from his toil in the crucible of high finance to explain that all is not moral darkness in the upper reaches of the investing class; that people who invest in businesses help alleviate poverty and make the economy strong; and that it is risk-taking that offers Americans their best -- indeed, their only -- chance to have "the opportunities he's had."

It was not to be, alas. Mr. Edwards said instead that if he's elected President he'll still try to abolish offshore tax shelters. At least he'll have already made his money.


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May 18, 2007

State park users include OEA school teachers

Three teachers and a minister were arrested last weekend for allegedly having sex in a public park, authorities said. The men were identified as Harry Nelson, 57, a teacher at Parrish Middle School in Salem; Ronald Bridge, 53, an elementary school teacher at Sunset Primary School in West Linn and John Backus, a professor at Western Oregon University.

One of the other suspects is listed in the Salem phone book as Reverend Steven Adams.

Four additional men -- some of them registered sex offenders -- were arrested during a two-day sting operation at Holman Wayside Park, said Polk County Sheriff Robert Wolfe.

From left to right: Backus, Nelson, Bridge; Adams

"This is a result of mostly public indecency and deviant sexual acts" which happened in broad daylight on park trails, Wolfe said. He added that the acts took place between consenting adults.

The sting took place Saturday and Sunday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“Apparently, this has become become quite a problem and we’re working to put a stop to it," the sheriff said.

The park is located about two miles west of downtown Salem. It has a reputation as a place for illegal sexual activity as well as drug use, according to Wolfe.

Nelson is on administrative leave and Bridge announced Wednesday that he is retiring.

Backus will continue teaching for now.


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"I Hate Business" bill clears Oregon House

Officially, the bill passed in the Oregon House on Wednesday is known as "The Responsible Employer Act." But unofficially, it's been called "The I Hate Wal-Mart Bill." The bill, approved by Democrats on a party-line vote, requires the state to produce a report each year ranking the 40 worst Oregon employers - those with the greatest numbers of workers on Food Stamps and Medicaid assistance.

And while the bill doesn't explicitly single out the mega-sized retailer, there's little doubt where Wal-Mart is likely to end up if such a report is mandated.

"They top the list more than anybody else by far," said Greg LeRoy, executive director of a national research group that has tracked similar studies in about two dozen other states.

He said retailers and fast-food chains wind up topping such lists because they employ such vast numbers of workers - many at low wages and few or no benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans. Given Wal-Mart's enormity, it's not surprising that it has employed more workers who qualify for public assistance than have other corporations, said LeRoy, whose organization, based in Washington, D.C., is called Good Jobs First.

Wal-Mart and other retail chains that pay their workers so poorly that they qualify for public assistance are in effect being subsidized by the taxpaying public, critics have argued.

The report required in House Bill 3252 would be compiled annually by the state Department of Human Services. It would rely on the previous year's data. The report would not identify individuals receiving public assistance but would make public the names of the 40 employers that make each year's list.

A Silverton-based think tank, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, last year tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Oregon Department of Human Services to produce such a study. Its executive director, Chuck Sheketoff, said the information could help guide policy-makers in determining which types of employers should be recruited to Oregon and which ones end up being a drain on public coffers by paying low wages.

According to Good Jobs First, Wal-Mart in 2004 received more than $1 billion worth of incentives from state and local governments nationwide as they competed for the company to locate stores within their jurisdictions.

Wal-Mart officials have disagreed with claims that the company provides inadequate benefits to workers.

A company Web site states that "Wal-Mart works diligently to provide substantial, solid health coverage and benefits for our associates."

Wal-Mart offers 18 different health insurance plans, according to the Web site, and provides insurance to more than 1 million people. Coverage is available for as little as $11 per month for individuals and 30 cents per day for children, regardless of the number of children an employee has, the company said. It also offers a profit-sharing and 401(k) plan and offers discounts for child care tuition. Unlike other companies, Wal-Mart adds, it hasn't decreased its contribution to medical packages or other benefits.

Rep. Fred Girod, a Stayton Republican who called the Oregon bill "The I Hate Wal-Mart Bill," said the reports it requires would result only in the unnecessary use of public dollars to embarrass the companies on the list.

Another opponent, Rep. John Lim, R-Gresham, warned that the reports would "create an unfriendly atmosphere for the businesses coming to our state," by sending the message that "the government is checking up on them."

Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley, said it was important for policy-makers and citizens to know where tax dollars are being spent when it comes to workers who aren't able to make ends meet with their pay and benefits.

"If you're a taxpayer, you're paying for that business's employee's health care," he said. "We have to know where our tax dollars are going and who's benefiting."

To become law, the bill would need to pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.


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May 17, 2007

State tax overpayments indicate need for reform

When lawmakers learned Tuesday that they had another $152 million to spend in the 2007-09 budget, it was as if they'd found a winning lottery ticket in a forgotten pocket. Money for higher education! For Head Start! For a reserve fund! It was like Christmas in May.

Nice as it is to have those things, this is a backward way to run a state. Where else in this country do legislators wait until the 11th hour to count all extra tax money pouring in due to a better-than-expected economy, to pay for every lawmakers' wish list of non-essential services? Where else does a windfall of less than 1 percent of the two-year budget set off a major celebration?

This stuff happens because of Oregon's screwy collectivism, made even worse by the majority Labor-Democrats. It's complicated and unpredictable for at least three reasons:

# It depends way too heavily on the tax increases instead of spending control, which makes the economy into a public enemy.

# Oregon depends more and more on lottery earnings. Be glad you aren't the economist who has to predict accurately how much good old-fashioned folks will gamble during the next two years. Legislators will treat that guess as gospel when they budget how much money to allot for schools and other services.

# Voter initiatives have helped simplify a too-complex system, but lawmakers consistently strike down the will of the people when it would limit their power and authority.

Oregonians have been remarkably uninterested in reforming this mess. The last person to raise the subject was Sen. Ben Westlund, who made a new sales tax the centerpiece of his failed run for governor in 2006. When he dropped out of the race, talk of a new tax pretty much ended.

Now he's about to revive it.

Labor education officials will dominate this discussion, since they aren't praying every two years for some gift from the gods, but from Our Oregon's success at the polls. Business leaders - mark them absent. City, county and state officials are preparing to swarm all over the carcass of the Oregon economy. Unions are there, of course, silently pulling the politicians' strings from behind the curtain.

This calls for rethinking the way we control state government - a right to work law comes to mind - that would allow us to rejoin the economic growth mainstream in America. Oregon needs a leader to shake things up. Who can do the job now?


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Citizens thrill to the new revolution

French President Nicolas Sarkozy named Francois Fillon as prime minister on Thursday, banking on the moderate conservative's negotiating skills to push through sweeping reforms in the face of union resistance.

On his first full day in office, Sarkozy held a breakfast meeting with Fillon before confirming the appointment of the 53-year-old who masterminded Sarkozy's presidential campaign.

Fillon worked with powerful trade unions when he was social affairs minister to push through sensitive pension reforms in 2003, making him a natural choice to spearhead Sarkozy's changes to labour laws and the pensions system.

"In a world of six billion human beings, the 60 million French people must remain united. That is the spirit of openness that the president wants," Fillon said at a handover ceremony with outgoing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

"I will listen to everyone because a France in motion needs everyone."

Fillon's cool temperament contrasts with Sarkozy's high-octane personality. Commentators have said that in the "calm break" with the past that Sarkozy has called for, the right-winger is the break while Fillon is the calm.

The prime minister heads the government and is in charge of carrying out policy while the president has traditionally had a more hands-off role, overseeing government without necessarily being involved in daily details.

Sarkozy, however, has said he wants to play a more active role during his five-year term.

"The people have entrusted me with a mandate. I will fulfil it. I will fulfil it scrupulously," Sarkozy said in his inaugural speech after taking over from Jacques Chirac on Wednesday.

To do that, he needs to secure a majority in June's parliamentary election or face 'cohabiting' with a left-wing government, which would compromise his reform agenda and limit his role to little more than handling foreign affairs and defence.


An IPSOS poll on Wednesday put support for his UMP party at 40 percent, an improvement of 1.5 points compared to the last election in 2002, which the right won. The opposition Socialists and their allies were roughly unchanged at 28 percent.

Fillon's openness to negotiation with the unions is regarded as a key asset that will be crucial in implementing reforms.

Union leaders have said the fact Sarkozy won 53 percent of the vote in the May 6 presidential run-off ballot did not mean they could be steamrolled into accepting his programme.

Sarkozy is set to name a slimmed-down cabinet of 15 full ministers on Friday, half of them women, and French media said it could hold its first session that afternoon.

The cabinet line-up remains largely unclear. However, popular left-winger Bernard Kouchner appeared set to become foreign minister, a move that ties in with Sarkozy's pledge to focus on human rights.

The new president has vowed to move quickly to implement his campaign promises but will want to avoid a repeat of last year's botched youth labour reforms, which Villepin was forced to withdraw after nationwide protests.


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May 16, 2007

Area men increasing use of state parks

Polk County authorities arrested eight men last weekend in an undercover sting targeting illegal sexual activity in a state park, officials said. Six Salem men, one Monmouth resident and one Portland resident were arrested in a two-day operation at Holman State Wayside Park on Highway 22 near Doaks Ferry Road NW.

Sheriff spokesman Dean Bender said the agency had received numerous complaints about illegal sex activity at the park. A deputy responding to a complaint of indecent activity resulted in the arrest of one man about two weeks ago, Bender said.

That incident lead to the weekend's effort. About 10 plainclothes detectives, patrol deputies and reserve deputies conducted the operation Saturday and Sunday.

Four men were arrested on public indecency charges Saturday between 11:45 a.m. and 4:35 p.m. Four more men were arrested on similar charges Sunday between 10:53 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. All but two of the men were contacted alone throughout park off various trails.

The men were arrested and booked into Polk County jail. All but one posted bail. Public indecency is a Class A misdemeanor charge.

Bender said deputies were "quite surprised" by the number of arrests. Bender said it didn't take long when plainclothes deputies first contacted the men for a charge to appear.

A similar sting at Holman State Wayside took place about 15 years ago, Bender said.

Bender said he did not know how the men knew about using the park for sexual activity.

"It's a public park, so public parks will have kids of different ages," Bender said. "That kind of behavior won't be tolerated anywhere."


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May 15, 2007

Pro-labor small business lobbyist ousted

The future ex-small business lobbyist is now simply ex. The Oregon NFIB has replaced J.L. Wilson as its state director and lobbyist, according to a letter the group sent to legislators. Wilson, the son of former lawmaker Carl Wilson (R-Grants Pass), joined the organization in 1999 after serving as a staffer to former House Speakers Lynn Lundquist and Lynn Snodgrass.

NFIB, which says it represents nearly 13,000 small Oregon businesses, is a potent force in the Capitol and is particulalarly influential with rural legislators.

Last month, WW reported that although the terms of Wilson's employment with NFIB allowed him to lobby only for NFIB, he was registered to lobby for more than 30 other groups, including some whose interests appear to conflict with NFIB's.

A spokesman for in Washington D.C. declined to answer questions about Wilson but said the group will soon post a statement on its website, nfib.org. [UPDATE: It's now up.] Meanwhile, Wilson's picture and bio have been removed from the site.

Wilson was unavailable for comment.


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May 14, 2007

AFL-CIO agrees to let kids vote on school levies

If the Oregon Constitution were followed to the letter, Evan Pulvers still couldn't vote for a school levy. A group of former Grant High students is still trying to get some unnecessary language out of the Oregon Constitution. They're finding that even the easy changes are hard to get made.

If the Oregon Constitution were followed to the letter, Evan Pulvers still couldn't vote for a school levy. She's 19, and the law says you have to be 21, and speak English.

"There's case law precedence that this is illegal, there's also general common sense."

Last year, Pulvers was on Grant High's Constitution team, which put hours and hours into trying to get the Secretary of State of request the language be stricken. The state House agreed, but the bill is now stuck in a Senate committee.

Pulvers isn't frustrated by the delay. "It's actually been affirming of how easy it is to get involved in the process."

The optimistic teen expects the issue to be on your November ballot.


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Local AFL-CIO slush fund still leaking cash

Portland-based Fog Cutter Capital Group Inc., led by convicted pension fund criminal Andrew Wiederhorn - who bribed The Oregonian reporter covering his story - reported a loss of $3.7 million in the first quarter of 2007. Revenue was $11.4 million, with a loss of 46 cents per share, compared with revenue of $11.3 million, with a loss of $1 million, or 12 cents per share in the same quarter of last year. The first-quarter loss was about the same the company lost in the first nine months of last year.

Fog Cutter conducts its operations in four business segments: restaurant operations through its Fatburger subsidiary; manufacturing activities conducted through its DAC International subsidiary; real estate operations; and software development and sales conducted through its Centrisoft Corp. subsidiary.

In the first quarter of 2007, Fog Cutter made most of its revenue -- about $10 million -- from restaurant and manufacturing sales.

About $1.4 million of the loss for the 2007 period came from the company's Fatburger restaurant chain, which is currently in the process of nationwide and international expansion.

Franchisees currently own and operate 52 of the Fatburger locations and the company has agreements for approximately 207 new franchise locations in the United States and Canada.

The company's first quarter results include a gain of $2.5 million from the sale of its mortgage brokerage unit, George Elkins Mortgage Banking Co.

Compensation and employee benefits almost doubled in the first quarter of 2007 to $4.8 million.


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How the AFL-CIO gained control of Oregon gov't

I heard this story from someone who is in position to know ... During the governor race, shortly after the primary, when Ron Saxton was looking very strong, the public employee unions had a little pow-wow with the Governor.

Remember, they backed Jim Hill in the primary, so perturbed they were about Kulongoski leaving the plantation on the PERS reforms and the pay freeze for state workers.

They said to the governor: We want to support you, but we don't trust you. We have a $3 million check here for you, but this is the way it's gunna be - we run the show. When you win, we put our guys in place and you do nothing without their approval. [This, of course, is a paraphrase.]

And that is how we got Chip Terhune and Tim Nesbitt as the top dogs in the new administration. They call all the shots, because that is the deal the Governor accepted.

So now, the unions directly run the executive branch of Oregon state government, and the Democrats run both houses of the legislature.

God have mercy on us.


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May 13, 2007

Owners of The Oregonian worth $15 billion

The combined wealth of the out-of-state brother-owners of The Oregonian makes theirs the 12th largest fortune in the United States. Thursday, Forbes Magazine released its annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. As usual, at the request of Si and Donald Newhouse, local news reports neglected to mention them. The net worth of the aging, 2nd generation print media monopolists is actually listed at $14.6 billion.


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Labor Markets fuel small-town economies

Ontario, Oregon's new Labor Market is now a major presence on the town's east side and the worker center has also made an impact regarding where some businesses locate, where people shop and the tax picture in Malheur County.

“The first things that come to mind are the union dues and PERS,” regional economist Jason Yohannan said, when asked about the economic impact of the Labor Market on Ontario. From 2004 to 2007, the number of union jobs in the retail sector in Malheur County climbed from 1,850 to 1,960 — a boost of 110 jobs. “Which translates into a 6 percent increase,” Yohannan said.

That trend in Malheur County appears to be going strong, according to statistics published in Yohannan’s latest Eastern Oregon Labor Market report.

According to the report, there were 80 additional jobs created in the retail trade in Malheur County from March 2006 to March 2007, with 50 of those added between February and March of this year.

“The leisure and hospitality sector didn’t grow much,” Yohannan said, noting that sector includes restaurants and indicates a less certain economic impact.

Statistics for the leisure and hospitality sector show an increase of 20 jobs for the 2004 to 2006 time period.

Between March 2006 and the start of 2007, though, there was an increase of 30 jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector.

“Some of the (retail) increase you can arguably be attribute to the Marketplace,” he said. “Some represents a shift of employment.”

Those figures do not show the split between employees who live in Oregon and those who live in Idaho, Yohannan said.

“The statistics are based on location of the business and count the jobs in Malheur County,” he said.

Ontario Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Breidenbach said the growth on Ontario’s east side is beneficial for the community.

“It has become a great economic impact,” Breidenbach said. “I’m looking for its expansion. Growth is good,”

Breidenbach also noted some of the expansion on the east side arrived as a result of businesses moving from downtown or West Park Plaza.

One of the challenges with the growth at the Marketplace will be to ensure that expansion reaches the rest of Ontario, he said.

While the growth around the Marketplace has been good for the retail jobs, Malheur County Economic Development Director Jim Jensen said there are still challenges.

He said he also believes other sectors of Ontario will have their day economically.

“The east side has become the retail hub of Malheur County,” Jensen said.

But while the east side is the current hotspot, he said he believes the areas around to North Ontario Interchange will begin to thrive in the future.

“We will see businesses moving to downtown and the other side of town,” he said. “I think we are poised to see a lot of activity.”


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