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Survey suggests economy slowing down in 9 Midwest states

The Associated Press

OMAHA — A new monthly survey of business leaders suggests the economy is slowing down in nine Midwest and Plains states as the U.S. trade war with China continues.

The overall index for the region slipped into negative territory at 48.6 in November from October’s 52.6.

The survey results are compiled into a collection of indexes ranging from zero to 100. Survey organizers say any score above 50 suggests growth. A score below that suggests decline.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who oversees the survey, says the ongoing trade war and slow global growth are hurting manufacturers in the region.

The survey covers Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

Survey suggests economy slowing in U.S. heartland

The Associated Press

OMAHA — A new monthly survey of business leaders suggests the economy is slowing down in nine Midwest and Plains states as the U.S. trade war with China continues, according to a report released Monday.

The overall index for the region slipped into negative territory at 48.6 in November from October’s 52.6.

The survey results are compiled into a collection of indexes ranging from zero to 100. Survey organizers say any score above 50 suggests growth. A score below that suggests decline.

“Slow global growth and trade skirmishes and wars are negatively affecting growth among manufacturers in the region,” said Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who oversees the survey.

The survey covers Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The regional trade numbers showed new export orders falling to 39.1 from October’s 44.7. But imports increased to 52 in November from last month’s 48.2 as supply managers bought additional items ahead of higher tariffs expected in the weeks ahead.

The region’s employment index fell to 37.2 in November from October’s 50 as some businesses struggled to find workers to hire. Goss said the availability of workers continues to constrain job growth in the region.

The confidence index, which measures sentiment about the next six months, improved to 52.9 in November from October’s 47.3. Goss said business confidence will depend on the progress in trade talks with China and the passage of the nation’s trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The wholesale price index, which measures inflation, increased to 65.7 in November from 57 in October. Goss said tariffs have had only a modest impact on inflation so far.

For banks, data on your spending habits could be gold mine

NEW YORK — There’s a powerful new player watching what you buy so it can tailor product offerings for you: the bank behind your credit or debit card.

For years, Google and Facebook have been showing ads based on your online behavior. Retailers from Amazon to Walgreens also regularly suction up your transaction history to steer future spending and hold your loyalty.

Now banks, too, want to turn data they already have on your spending habits into extra revenue by identifying likely customers for retailers. Banks are increasingly aware that they could be sitting on a gold mine of information that can be used to predict — or sway — where you spend. Historically, such data has been used mostly for fraud protection.

Suppose you were to treat yourself to lunch on Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year. If you order ahead at Chipotle — paying, of course, with your credit card — you might soon find your bank dangling 10% off lunch at Little Caesars. The bank would earn fees from the pizza joint, both for showing the offer and processing the payment.

Wells Fargo began customizing retail offers for individual customers on Nov. 21, joining Chase, Bank of America, PNC, SunTrust and a slew of smaller banks.

Unlike Google or Facebook, which try to infer what you’re interested in buying based on your searches, web visits or likes, “banks have the secret weapon in that they actually know what we spend money on,” said Silvio Tavares of the trade group CardLinx Association, whose members help broker purchase-related offers. “It’s a better predictor of what we’re going to spend on.”

While banks say they’re moving cautiously and being mindful of privacy concerns, it’s not clear that consumers are fully aware of what their banks are up to.

Banks know many of our deepest, darkest secrets — that series of bills paid at a cancer clinic, for instance, or that big strip-club tab that you thought stayed in Vegas. A bank might suspect someone’s adulterous affair long before the betrayed partner would.

“Ten years ago, your bank was like your psychiatrist or your minister — your bank kept secrets,” said Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Now, he says, “they think they are the same as a department store or an online merchant.”

The startup Cardlytics, one of the field’s pioneers, runs the offer programs for Wells Fargo, Chase and other banks. Though these partnerships, Cardlytics says it gets insights on about $2.8 trillion worth of annual consumer spending worldwide.

A Cardlytics rival named Augeo runs a similar program with other banks, which it declined to name. American Express has an in-house program for its cardholders. Visa targets offers on Uber’s app for credits toward rides and food delivery.

Even though banks only know where you’ve shopped — and not specifically what you bought — they’re often able to make educated guesses. After all, it’s not likely you’re at a liquor store for the potato chips.

The bank can then infer other things you may like. It would have a pretty good idea that you’re about to travel if you’ve charged a flight or hotel stays. HSBC is looking into using that data to set up automatic alerts, so that it wouldn’t decline your card use as fraudulent when you start charging for meals in Kathmandu or Karachi.

The next step is to make location-specific offers, perhaps for a car rental, as soon as you land. Marcos Meneguzzi, HSBC’s U.S. head of cards and unsecured lending, said cardholders will welcome such offers, at least when they’re relevant. But he warns that banks could easily overstep and lose their customers’ trust.

Many of these efforts remain in their infancy, and it’s not yet clear how well they’ll catch on. The Cardlytics programs, for instance, don’t push offers through notifications. You have to look for them in your banking app or website.

Abeer Bhatia, an executive with Chase’s credit-card business, said commissions barely cover operational costs. To Chase, the program is more important for incentivizing rewards-conscious consumers to use its cards. If a Chase card gets you an extra 10% at Rite Aid, why pull out your Citi card?

As far as these companies are concerned, Americans have repeatedly demonstrated that they value freebies and discounts more than intangible privacy concerns.

“Consumers understand the banks are giving them ways to save money based on how they shop,” said Scott Grimes, CEO and co-founder of Cardlytics.

But banks often don’t explain clearly what they’re doing with your data, even though they sometimes share your transactions with outside data companies such as Cardlytics to process offers. And many banks don’t seek explicit consent, instead including these programs by reference in general agreements for the card or online banking.

“It’s totally long, and people don’t read that,” said Saisattha Noomnual, a graduate student in Chicago who gets targeted offers through her Chase and Bank of America cards.

Under federal law, banks merely have to let you withdraw from marketing, or opt out. That’s difficult to do if you’re not aware it’s happening.

Noomnual said she can only guess she gets more offers for Starbucks because she visits Starbucks a lot. She reasons that based on how well banks analyze her spending for fraud alerts. While she said she doesn’t mind that, she wishes banks were more forthcoming.

Bank of America declined comment. Chase said it tries to keep disclosures simple and understandable without overwhelming consumers.

Banks insist they don’t share personal information with other companies because they replace names with anonymous ID numbers. Privacy researchers, however, have shown that such data can be “de-anonymized” under the right conditions.

Privacy advocates worry that past transactions could come back to haunt you. Frequent visits to fast-food joints might flag you as a health risk, which could be a problem if your health insurer could pay to learn about that. Auto insurers might grow wary of cardholders who run up large bar tabs.

And ultimately, these targeted offers could inadvertently encourage people to overspend or double down on unhealthy habits such as fast food.

“Consumers aren’t aware of the subtle nudges apps are giving them to buy, buy, buy,” Mierzwinski said. “They are basically digging deep into your psyche and figuring out how to manipulate you.”

Engineers give council insight to overpass options

When members of the Hastings City Council meet on Dec. 9, they will act on a four-part resolution to determine the future of the 16th Street viaduct.

The four parts of the resolution are the four options presented by engineering firm Olsson for the 85-year-old structure that has been closed to traffic since the end of May based on an engineering assessment that highlighted severe deterioration to the aging structure.

Council members approved at their Nov. 25 meeting a resolution declaring the viaduct to be a public safety matter.

“There is a safety issue there, and we all know there are other issues that come with an abandoned nuisance, basically,” Mayor Corey Stutte said Monday.

According to estimates from Olsson, Option 1 includes demolition of the structure, including coordination with Union Pacific Railroad, for a cost estimate of $1,464,140.

Option 2 is repairing the east abutment, removing the southern span, wrapping pillars and repairing extension contraction joints for a cost estimate of $3,095,120.

Option 3 is removing and shortening the span of the bridge over the railroad using retaining walls for a cost estimate of $12,466,370. This option includes the purchase of the former Taylor’s Steak House at 1609 N. Kansas Ave., underneath the bridge.

Option 4 is a new alignment of a new viaduct structure on Eastside Boulevard from 14th Street to 26th Street, including coordination with Union Pacific, for a cost estimate of $13,014,550.32. This includes the purchase of the apartment complex on Eastside Boulevard near the tracks for $850,000, right-of-way acquisitions of Nebraska Department of Transportation land, and overhead power relocations that aren’t in the public right-of-way.

Council members discussed those options during their work session on Monday.

City Administrator Dave Ptak presented financing estimates for the four options.

Property taxes for a house valued at $100,000 on a $1.5 million bond to tear down the structure range from $23.44 per year for five years to $7.50 per year for 20 years.

There are 10-year and 15-year amortization options, as well.

For a $3.1 million bond to fund extensive repairs, taxes on a house valued at $100,000 ranged from $45.44 per year for five years to $15.50 per year for 20 years.

For a $12.467 million bond to pay for a newer shorter span, taxes on a house valued at $100,000 ranged from $194.81 per year for five years to $62.48 per year for 20 years.

For a $13.05 million bond to pay for a new bridge alignment on Eastside Boulevard, taxes on a house valued at $100,000 ranged from $203.34 per year for five years to $65.07 per year for 20 years.

Jay Bleier, senior engineer for Olsson based in Hastings, was on hand to discuss the four options with the council and answer questions.

Engineer Tyler Cramer, a bridge expert for Olsson, joined the meeting by phone.

Bleier said each of the cost estimates includes a large amount for contingency and mobilization costs.

“Engineers like myself tend to be conservative because we don’t want you to make a decision and then have something come up where you say, ‘Geez, that’s $2 million more than what we expected,’ ” Bleier said. “We want to give you a worst-case scenario, hoping you don’t spend that much but be prepared anyway to do that.”

Because the extensive repair option has a lifespan of just 25-30 years, Bleier described that option as kicking the can down the road. While the repaired viaduct would serve the community during that time, the cost for a new structure after 25 years would be far more than it is now.

He estimated the repair option would take about six months to design and nine to 12 months to execute.

Answering a question from Stutte about where the dollars make the most sense between repair and replacement, Bleier said a new structure, with a lifespan of about 75 years, likely would make better use of community dollars but a cost feasibility study would need to be done for sure.

“For what it’s worth, Olsson is a member of this community,” he said. “We don’t want to see frivolous spending, whether it’s giving you something new when you don’t need it or trying to salvage something that shouldn’t be salvaged.”

Whatever decision is made Dec. 9 will not be made in a vacuum.

Stutte pointed out that in addition to whatever direction the council takes on the viaduct, the city already is committed to costs associated with the paving of 42nd Street between U.S. Highway 281 and Baltimore Avenue, paving of U.S. Highway 6 west of Burlington Avenue and the planned Hastings Southeast Highway 6 expansion project — all of which will add up to more than $10 million.

“This is not a single project,” he said of the viaduct. “This is something we need to look at in the collective project scope that we have in this community.”

Councilman Chuck Rosenberg, who has been the loudest voice on the council for keeping an overpass in the vicinity of the 16th Street viaduct, said these projects will promote growth in the community — mentioning 42nd Street by name.

“You cannot grow a community if you don’t have infrastructure,” he said. “These are big expenses we have, but they’ll pay it back as we grow this community and we get more tax dollars in. Everybody uses infrastructure every day.”

Councilwoman Jeniffer Beahm was not present at the work session, but emailed a comment to Stutte that was made public.

Beahm, who represents Ward 1 and south Hastings, wrote she did not believe investing in the repair of the overpass is a good use of taxpayer money.

She wrote her constituents in south Hastings face an inconvenience on a daily basis by having to travel miles out of the way to the Burlington Avenue underpass when a train is blocking a crossing near Elm to the east or Marian to the west.

“The old viaduct, as it stands today, is unsafe and quite frankly was meant to be torn down decades ago,” she wrote. “The Highway 281 overpass is not only an adequate alternative, it was designed to be the alternative. Plus the Elm Avenue overpass is perfectly suited to provide additional access to the North Park Commons development.

I cannot support the cost of repairing the old overpass when that money could be better spent — or better yet — saved for more critical projects in the future.”

Nelson experiences high-tech creativity

NELSON — Technology now available at the Nelson Public Library here enables ordinary citizens to bless family and friends with their own created low-cost personal gifts.

A 3-D printer, CNC router, Laser cutter, embroidery machine, heat press machine and vinyl cutter are the large items at the library that bring new possibilities for hobbies or work-from-home ventures. Smaller pieces of equipment include a camera and video kit, music and recording equipment, and other handy and easy-to-use machines.

The Nelson and Superior public libraries were among five around Nebraska announced in June as joining the list of libraries in the Nebraska Library Innovation Studios Makerspace Partnership. The five libraries are playing host to one of four rotating makerspaces.

Innovation Studios technology has been around for many years, but not necessarily within reach of the general public. Now, it is being made available to individuals on a more personal basis, and at a much lower cost.

Twenty-six other libraries were chosen for the program over the last two years. Those in Tribland have been Hastings, Blue Hill and Geneva.

dchristensen / Donna Christensen/Tribune  

Several area residents trained at the Nelson Public Library in Nelson on Nov. 9, learning how to use makerspace equipment now available for a time at the library through a partnership led by the Nebraska Library Commission.

The partnership project began July 1, 2017, and will conclude June 30, 2020. The equipment now in Nelson will remain there through late January 2020 and then will move to Blue Hill for a time.

According to a news release from the Nebraska Library Commission, NLC was awarded a National Leadership Grant of $530,732 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for this partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Innovation Studio, Nebraska Extension, regional library systems and local public libraries.

The program aims to stimulate creativity, innovation and the exchange of ideas to promote entrepreneurship, skills development and local economic development.

On Nov. 9, nine local women gathered at the Nelson library to receive training in use of the technology. Sherone Sader, who works as an assessor’s clerk at the Nuckolls County Courthouse, and Nelson librarian Mary Statz gave instructions to the attendees, each of whom made a decorative plate to experience the workability of the equipment.

Officials hope the equipment will open new doors to local residents, unlocking their creativity.

dchristensen / Donna Christensen/Tribune  

A patron works on a makerspace project at the Nelson library Nov. 9.

“It is our hope that people of our community will learn to employ this low-cost technology,” Statz said.

On the training day, each participant created her own design on a special computer, printed the image on a black vinyl sheet, cut the chosen image and learned how to carefully pull off the surrounding vinyl, revealing her designed image.

Next, the image, which was glue-backed, was pressed onto the decorative plate chosen for that purpose. The process was intricate and exacting, and needed to be done slowly and carefully.