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Welcome to the Philadelphia Pennsylvania blog. This blog contains a wealth of information about Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Apartment living, and housing opportunities in our great city and other metro areas of the U.S.. Learn about efforts at restoring architectural relics of the past - former factories, warehouses, schools, hotels, hospitals, train stations - into first-class houses and apartments, and in preserving these distinguished residential communities for future generations. Please enjoy your stay on our Philadelphia apartments blog and feel free to share your stories on life in Philly and the city of brotherly love. In addition, we welcome all commentaries regarding building remodeling, home remodeling, kitchen remodeling, bathroom remodeling, and house hunting. Thank You!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pennsylvania May Get Oil Company Tax Under Rendell Road-Repair Proposals


Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell proposed taxing oil companies and increasing motor-vehicle fees to generate an additional $1 billion annually for transportation infrastructure.

Oil companies do about $5 billion in business each year in the state while paying some $35 million in taxes, less than their fair share, Rendell, a 66-year-old Democrat, said today. A Republican spokesman said Rendell’s proposed tax is unlikely to pass, and might be unconstitutional.

Profits of oil companies doing business in the state would be taxed 8 percent under the proposal, bringing in about $576 million during the first full fiscal year. Motor vehicle fees, some of which haven’t been increased in decades, would be adjusted to reflect the rate of inflation, Rendell said in a press conference in Harrisburg, the capital.

Transportation funding is “one of the most important and immediate challenges facing the commonwealth,” said Rendell, who is serving his final year in office. “We all know that we’ve averted tragedy by happenstance here in Pennsylvania. We can’t endanger public safety any longer. We cannot wait another month before we get to work on these projects.”

Pennsylvania has 5,646 state-owned structurally deficient bridges, the most of any U.S. state, and more than 10,000 miles of roads in need of repair, according to a statement announcing the plan.

Scaling back

On Aug. 12, the Pennsylvania Transportation Commission, which sets transportation priorities for the state with the fifth-largest road network, cut its planned expenditure for the next 12 years from $67.9 billion to $51.6 billion, citing questions about federal funding, inflation and the lack of additional resources.

The state spent $3.9 billion on highways, bridges and transit in 2009, aided in part by $1 billion in federal stimulus funds, said Erin Waters, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The state needs an additional $3.5 billion in annual funding to maintain infrastructure, according to a May report by the Transportation Advisory Committee, which was established in 1970 to help determine the state’s needs.

Oil companies operating in Pennsylvania avoid most corporate income tax because their accounting credits profit to parent firms based in other states, Rendell said.

Under the proposal, the companies would be exempt from the 9.99 percent corporate net income tax. They would be barred by law from passing the new tax on to consumers at the pump, he said. The proposal would allocate money to the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Revenue to enforce the tax though audits.

33 Cents

Motor-vehicle fee increases would cost the typical Pennsylvania driver approximately 33 cents a week, Rendell said. That would add almost $434,000 to the motor license fund, according to calculations by the governor’s office sent in an e- mail from a spokesman, Gary Tuma.

The proposal may create as many as 40,000 “good-paying” jobs in the sixth-most-populous U.S. state, Rendell said. The General Assembly may vote on the measure in coming months.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican, said such a tax would be unworkable and unpassable.

“The specific plan to tax oil company profits -- and somehow prohibiting the companies from passing that cost on to Pennsylvania consumers -- has serious constitutional issues under the Commerce Clause,” said Erik Arneson, the spokesman. “At best, we would face years of litigation before seeing any possible revenue from that scheme.”

He said that the plan would likely die in the Senate.

House Republicans favor exploring public-private partnerships and greater contributions from local governments and users before turning to taxes and increased fees, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rising Enrollment Strains, Crowds Western PA Colleges

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

During her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Sandy Bly has seen the impact of ballooning freshman enrollment.

Students living in converted lounge areas. Difficulty in registering for required courses.

"It's pretty frustrating," said Bly, 20, a senior majoring in accounting and general management.

Colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania and across the nation are coping with similar growing pains. Enrollment is rising because of a lack of jobs, employers' demands for a bachelor's degree and more older students returning to the classroom.

At Pitt, where the number of new students increased 12 percent between 2005 and 2009, students initially assigned to lounges were in regular rooms within months, said Bly, a resident assistant. Still, the problem is repeating this fall.

About 50 freshmen will start the school year at the Wyndham Hotel Pittsburgh-University Place in Oakland, Pitt Provost Patricia E. Beeson said. Officials couldn't say how long those students might be there.

At Robert Morris University in Moon, about 200 students will live at the Holiday Inn Pittsburgh Airport this year because of a housing shortage that coincides with a record freshman class of more than 900, said Jonathan Potts, a university spokesman.

Beeson said she and her counterparts at schools across the country had a tough time anticipating the sizes of last year's and this year's first-year classes.

At Pitt and RMU, more students accepted admissions offers this year — boosting freshman class sizes, officials said.

"The economic uncertainty has made it difficult to know how many students to accept," she said.

A 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics projected that America's undergraduate enrollment will increase by 12 percent between 2007 and 2018. That would bring the total to 17.5 million students, up from 15.6 million.

Enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds is projected to grow by 9 percent during that period, to 12.1 million, while the number of 25- to 34-year-old students could mushroom by 25 percent, to 5 million.

"Today, you need a bachelor's degree or you're not going to do well in the short-term, the next three to five years," said John Hammang, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert based in Cranberry, published a report last week that shows recessions typically spur college enrollment in pursuit of such programs as education degrees. The average annual increase during a recession is about four times what it is otherwise, he concluded.

Critics argue that higher-education officials haven't handled the demand appropriately this time around.

"In almost any other endeavor with a product or service, they're able to achieve economies of scale," said James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a Virginia nonprofit. "Why can't they try to serve more students with a fixed level of investment, like more classes online?"

Pitt officials have no plans to add online courses targeted to traditional undergraduates, said Kit Ayars, a senior assistant to Beeson.

RMU officials plan to start eight online-degree programs, including business degrees, this fall, Potts said, but those are aimed at working adults.

Pitt is adding class sections of key freshman courses such as anthropology and composition. RMU hired eight faculty members to accommodate its bigger freshman class and programs, in addition to adding 34 class sections for the freshmen, Potts said.

Earlier this month, Pitt announced a $17.6 million project to build 48 on-campus apartments for 155 students before the start of the 2011-12 academic year.

Pitt officials generally can guarantee only three years of on-campus living for undergraduates, said Linda K. Schmitmeyer, a school spokeswoman.

A $12 million apartment-style residence hall for 190 students at RMU is expected to open in fall 2011, Potts said.

Duquesne University is building a residence hall for the first time in about a decade, said Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management. Scheduled to be finished in spring 2012, the $38 million building will house 400 upperclassmen in suites.

"Our freshman class size has gone up for the past number of years," Cukanna said. "The increase has been by design — not by happenstance."

When Duquesne President Charles J. Dougherty arrived in 2001, a total of 1,191 new students entered the school. Last year, that number was 1,432, Cukanna said.

Competition in the higher-ed marketplace has compelled Duquesne officials to offer new programs, such as a pharmacy degree that students may earn on weekends, he said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

PA Company has Tombstones Going Digital

Philadelphia Inquirer

WAYNESBURG, Pa. - The concept of barcodes on tombstones and interactivity at the cemetery was considered too far-fetched when Glenn Toothman first traveled to funeral industry conferences 10 years ago.

"Nothing in the death-care business happens too quickly," he said.

After years of waiting, technological developments have finally allowed Toothman to get to a point of "rebirth" for his Waynesburg company, the Memory Medallion.

The Memory Medallion story began one Sunday evening in 1999, when Toothman, then the district attorney for Greene County, was visited by his father, a retired judge.

"I spent the day in the cemeteries," the judge told his son. "And I hate to think that life comes down to this dash" between the birth and death dates on a tombstone.

You're the problem-solver of this family, he told his son, and you need to think of a better way to honor the deceased.

Toothman has always been a "frustrated electronic engineer," and he knew the answer had a technological solution , replace the dash with a high-tech dot that can direct cell phones to websites and video about the deceased.

A standard Memory Medallion remembrance package costs $225 and includes a barcode medallion for the grave site, a website of eight photos and 1,000-word story and a printed biography. Family members also can record a video about the deceased that plays on smart phones that scan the barcode, called a QR code.

QR codes have become hot tools for advertisers hoping to hook young shoppers with promotional deals. Japanese companies started the trend of putting them on tombstones.

Toothman said his board of directors doesn't like him to tell this next part, but what's true is true: The solution came to him in a dream.

Surveying Green Mount Cemetery on a recent morning, Toothman recounted the dream with tears in his eyes. He saw himself walking through a cemetery holding a device that touched the tombstones and displayed photos of his family.

He had his first prototype after about 30 days of tinkering in the basement. His wife would find her moonlighting husband asleep in the suit he'd worn in court that day.

In 2001, the company applied for funding from Innovation Works, a nonprofit venture capital firm that provides funding for startups.

He secured a $300,000 grant.

The smart phone market has been a godsend for Memory Medallion, which previously required users to lug a laptop to the tombstone and download the information through a USB cable.

The accompanying remembrance website links to online genealogy sources and also can have customized links, such as a personal Facebook page. A fourth link was introduced recently and is available for corporate sponsorship.

A certified genealogist on staff, Candice Buchanan, sets the page up for families.

The company is in talks with public memorials that honor those fallen on Sept. 11, 2001, and Memory Medallions has been used as a supplement to historical tours that stop in a cemetery.

The first year Memory Medallion saw about 50 sales. Last year the company recorded about 5,000, and Toothman expects business to grow about 200 percent in the coming years. His staff of seven workers also will grow in scale, he said.

Toothman, who resigned as Greene County's district attorney in 2001 to focus on the Memory Medallion, expects 2011 to be the first year he'll make more money in the new job than he did in his old one.

The company works out of a vine-covered, Victorian home, complete with a turret and second-story wraparound porch.

Clients come from near and far.

Marilyn Kerr, of Waynesburg, has more than six Memory Medallions for her immediate family, but her first Medallion was for a distant cousin with no children or relatives.

"There would be no one to hear her story without it," she said. "It's something that lives on and on and on. When I'm not here to tell my children about them, I want them to feel more closely related to that individual," she said.

Toothman talks about the project in evangelical, not fiscal, terms, viewing it as a chance to help his depressed community economically and his fellow man spiritually.

And industry executives say the skepticism has faded over the years.

Dave Bishop offers Memory Medallions to clients as senior executive vice president of sales at McCleskey Mausoleums of Atlanta, and the rate of purchase is about the same for clients who are planning their own grave site or buying one for a deceased relative.

Bishop said his company does not get a cut of Medallion profits , he simply sells it because he believes in it.

"Cemeteries are the receptors of heritage," he said. "It's really neat, but we have to make sure it is going to last."

But the company long ago satisfied its most important customer.

Before his father died in 2001, Toothman showed him the first Memory Medallion.

"He said it finally gave him a reason to own a computer," he said.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pittsburgh Commercial Real Estate Market Improving

Pittsburgh Business Times

Real estate research company RealSTATs says the Pittsburgh region's commercial real estate market showed an increase in sales volume for the first half of 2010, compared to the same period last year.

RealSTATs data shows the volume of commercial sales in the Pittsburgh region during the first half was $395.98 million, up 54 percent from the first half of 2009, when the volume was at a five-year low of $256.9 million.

The average commercial sales volume for the first half of the year in the region over the past five years is $667.3 million.

In Allegheny County, commercial sales volume was up 34 percent over the first half of 2009, to $277.5 million. Within the city of Pittsburgh, two sales accounted for almost half of the first half's $160.3 million total: the $38.6 million sale of the Federal North building at 1315 Federal St., and an eight-story office building on Penn Avenue, which sold for $35 million.