Course Correction

BY LIZ FARMER | SEPTEMBER 2019

Standing on the 7th hole putting green on the municipal golf course in Rockville, Md., it’s easy to take a deep breath and forget about the traffic-clogged roads, noisy highways and rumbling commuter trains that cut through much of this bustling Washington, D.C., suburb. It’s quiet at RedGate Golf Course. So quiet, in fact, that it’s easy to hear the crunch of lifeless, gray grass underfoot while strolling across the once-vibrant green.

The financially troubled course has been closed since December, when the company operating it for the city backed out of its contract three years early. Turning management over to Billy Casper Golf, which runs more than 100 courses nationwide, was Rockville’s last-ditch effort at keeping RedGate open. Over the last three years, the course saw a more than 50 percent decline in revenue to roughly $550,000 in 2018. Billy Casper drastically cut expenses—which hurt the attractiveness and quality of play at the course—but still wound up losing an estimated $91,000 last year, according to the National Golf Foundation. 

How State Procurement Offices Are Learning to Buy Better

BY LIZ FARMER | JULY 2019

As consumers, we’ve been part of a tech-driven revolution. Most of the companies we buy from remember our preferences and automatically offer suggestions for similar purchases. When we are interested in a product, we look online at customer ratings and reviews to make sure we are getting a quality item that will last. Cumbersome chores, like filling out forms with our address or credit card information, are done for us automatically. If we have a question about a product or the process, a chatbot pops up to help out.

Tulsa Struggles to Make Amends for a Massacre it Ignored for Nearly a Century

On weekday mornings, enticing whiffs of bacon and fried potatoes waft from Wanda J’s Next Generation restaurant in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. The smell of breakfast on the griddle offers a comforting contrast to the sound of big rigs and commuter traffic roaring by on the Interstate 244 overpass that cleaves the neighborhood in two. 

At first glance, the Greenwood section of Tulsa doesn’t look much different from places in other cities where, in the name of urban renewal, new highways were erected in the 1960s, obliterating or dividing minority neighborhoods. Around the corner from Wanda J’s, there are signs of a revitalization effort -- or of gentrification, depending on whom you ask. A sign on an empty lot promises a future mixed-use development; a two-story historic building nearby has already been renovated with retail on the ground floor that includes a combo coffee shop and yoga studio, a bookstore, and a Vietnamese sandwich shop. 

But the sidewalks that line the streets of this neighborhood offer a grim reminder of Greenwood’s darker past. Every 20 or 30 feet, a plaque lists the name of a business -- a restaurant, grocer, lawyer, doctor, clothing store -- and below it, the words, “Destroyed in 1921.”

States' Capital Budgets Have Become Partisan Battlegrounds

BY  SEPTEMBER 2018

The picture spoke a thousand words: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his family were frolicking and sunning themselves on an otherwise empty beach at Island Beach State Park. The sandy shore was closed to the public because a budget impasse in 2017 had shut down the government. The stalemate threatened thousands of state residents’ July 4th plans that year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, legislators in Washington state were embroiled in a charged political budget battle over rural water rights. The lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to fix the problem of who had the right to dig new wells. The impasse lasted a nasty six months, but few people outside the state even heard about the freeze on spending it caused. 

That’s because while New Jersey’s budget standoff was immediately felt by all state residents, Washington’s battle merely held up the state’s capital budget. While capital budgets are incredibly important for job growth and a state’s economy, in most places holding one hostage doesn’t cause a government shutdown. Hitting the pause button on spending to build roadways and school buildings doesn’t have the same impact as closing a public beach on a hot summer day. 

 

Berkeley's Bold Bet on Bitcoin

BY  AUGUST 2018

Berkeley, Calif., has always had an independent streak. It was named after Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who advanced the theory of immaterialism or the belief that material things have no objective existence. Located across the bay from San Francisco, Berkeley has long attracted people and ideas outside of the mainstream. In the 1960s, it was the birthplace of the free speech movement and hippie counterculture. In the 1990s, an advocacy group tried to bring back the bartering system in protest of economic globalization. And in the 2000s, voters overwhelmingly approved the nation’s first-ever soda tax to counteract the damage done by high-sugar drinks.

But now this city known for its out-there policies is taking perhaps its biggest risk yet: Later this year, it plans on becoming the first municipality in the country to issue municipal bonds using the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrency. The project is the brainchild of Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Vice Mayor Ben Bartlett and is being billed as a way to make investing in municipal bonds more accessible than ever. That’s because, unlike the minimum $5,000 bond denomination common today, “cryptobonds” can be issued in denominations as low as $5 or $10. The bonds also have the potential to open up a whole new way for the city to raise money for housing. This is an acute issue since the Trump administration has slashed the budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, cut funding for Section 8 housing credits and targeted sanctuary cities such as Berkeley for federal funding cuts.

The New Gold Rush for Green Bonds

BY  JULY 2018

Hanging on the wall just outside Bryan Kidney’s office in Lawrence, Kan., is the framed first page of a bond offering statement. Unlike most -- or really, any -- bond statements, this one required a color printer. It could even be described as cheeky: It’s for the sale of the city’s first green bond, and every reference to “green bond” or “green project” is printed in green ink.

Kidney, the city’s finance director who shepherded the $11.3 million sale last year, says the green ink originally started out as a joke. 

But then, he thought, why not? When the projects are fully implemented, Lawrence is projected to save 3,201 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) annually, which is equal to burning 3.5 million fewer pounds of coal. “I get really passionate about this stuff,” Kidney says. “I was just so excited that Lawrence stepped up to be a leader in sustainability.”