The Economy Today: Constructive Construction?

News from Montana, Arizona, Ohio, and elsewhere

In national headlines, President Obama vowed yesterday to accelerate stimulus spending, with the goal, the Los Angeles Times writes, of “creating or saving 600,000 jobs by summer’s end.” As of May 29, it reports, only about 6 percent of the funds had been spent. But a part of the problem is that it’s simply difficult to measure the results or effects of the stimulus spending. The Times wonders if the public is getting impatient. Case in point: How much will be spent to create or save those 600,000 jobs? Jared Bernstein, one of the White House’s top economic advisors, said, “It’s a fair question…We’ll absolutely keep you posted.”

The New York Times reports that Obama’s critics, reacting to the news that unemployment is up now to 9.4 percent, question the effectiveness of the stimulus plan and are railing against the temporary nature of the jobs being created. Obama’s defense of his plan? “Tell that to the Americans who receive that unexpected call saying, ‘Come back to work.’”

USA Today says that, following in the steps of the federal government, local governments are increasingly loaning struggling businesses taxpayer money to help them weather the downturn: “Prominent businesses are seeking — and in some cases getting — cash, tax forgiveness, loans, loan guarantees and other types of aid to help survive the recession.” Critics are calling them bailouts; supporters say the deals are necessary to “create jobs and generate taxes.” The most aggressive seekers of local money, according to the report—and the ones most likely to make taxpayers squeamish—are luxury real estate developers that started “too-big-to-fail” projects during the housing boom and now need help finishing them.

The Billings Gazette takes a look at a smaller chunk of the recovery picture: three to five jobs. Flaxville, a tiny burg of just over 100 people (with a yearly budget of $36,000), in northern Montana, will get a stimulus check for $7,530 and will use it to “sand-blast and repaint the inside of the town’s 10,000-gallon water tank,” which, the mayor estimates, will create three to five jobs for the duration of three months.

Any day now, the State Energy Office in Arizona should be receiving the first installment of money to pay for the state’s weatherization plan, according to the Arizona Guardian. (Arizona was the first state to apply for the weatherization assistance grant on April 28, creating a sort of unofficial timeline of money requested and money received.) The house weatherization project—which will add insulation, seal leaks and modernize cooling equipment, among other things—will both create jobs and help consumers out with summer cooling bills. And the state likely has other allotments of money coming down the pipeline. But, in an example of bureaucratic delay, it’ll take another two or three months before the U.S. Department of Energy completes its review of one big portion of it: Arizona’s application for $55.4 million to expand the State Energy Program, which invests in renewable energy programs.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer runs the headline, “Ohio’s first stimulus construction project under way but benefits won’t be felt for years,” echoing concerns that the stimulus money isn’t making enough of an impact, quickly enough. The project involves “widening the Interstate 490 east ramp to Interstate 77 north to accommodate a second lane.” The report’s description of the news conference: “Even with no immediate benefits, the project was hailed Monday as a history-making investment.” Why the skepticism? With the money currently available, the ramp work could be finished by late October, but the public “won’t be able to use the roadway for a while because it feeds into a portion of I-77 north that needs to be upgraded.” How’s that for helpful money?

And in a more optimistic story about the stimulus package’s impact, Portland’s Daily Journal of Commerce reports that construction companies are, in fact, happy with the trickle-down effect of stimulus spending. A heavy construction company in Oregon has gotten asphalt paving projects “totaling almost 5 million dollars”; its owner, Don Laskey, has been able to keep fifteen employees who otherwise would have been laid off, and he’ll hire at least seven new ones. On the other hand, the Daily Journal didn’t find Laskey; Laskey found the paper, relaying his story on a media conference call hosted by the Associated General Contractors of America.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.