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Wednesday AM August 30th, 2006

Consumer confidence drops…Houston hotels increase amenities for guests affected by airline security guidelines…Texas portal named best e-government Web site… Consumer confidence has taken a big dip. The Conference Board says its August Consumer Confidence Index dropped to 99.6 from 107 in July. It’s now at its lowest level since November, amid rising anxiety over the […]


Consumer confidence drops…Houston hotels increase amenities for guests affected by airline security guidelines…Texas portal named best e-government Web site…

Consumer confidence has taken a big dip. The Conference Board says its August Consumer Confidence Index dropped to 99.6 from 107 in July. It’s now at its lowest level since November, amid rising anxiety over the business and employment environment. The August reading represents the largest one-month decline in confidence since Hurricane Katrina last year. Economists were expecting a dip in August, but this is well below the 102.5 reading they had predicted. The Conference Board, a private research group, says consumers’ take on current conditions was “significantly less favorable.” Conference Board Consumer Research Center Director Lynn Franco blames “less favorable business conditions coupled with a less favorable job scenario.”

Although the manufacturing industry is thriving in this time of high energy prices, the people working in the industry are taking a hit. In its annual Labor Day report on the economy, the National Association of Manufacturers notes production has increased at its fastest pace in six years. And jobs on the factory floor have registered their strongest gains since 1998. While workers total compensation has continued to outpace inflation, wages have not. The NAM report says energy prices have propelled inflation at a faster pace than workers take-home pay. The result–declines in real wages. The association says the 23 percent increase in energy costs over the past year illustrates the need for a national energy policy.

America’s poverty rate essentially stayed the same last year. According to the Census Bureau, about 12.6 percent of the population lived under the poverty line in 2005. While that’s one tenth of one percent lower than the year before, officials say for the purpose of statistics, it’s basically unchanged. It also marks the first year without an increase since before President Bush took office. Thirty-seven million Americans were living in poverty last year. The federal government defines the poverty threshold for a family of four at just under $20,000. For a single person, it’s almost $10,000.

A poll by the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston shows that local hotels have increased amenities for guests affected by new airline security guidelines. According to the Houston Business Journal, some provide overnight shipping of luggage, as well as provide complimentary toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics and other banned items from carry-on luggage. Arrival and departure times have been extended without penalty at the Holiday Inn Express in The Woodlands when guests are delayed by security measures. Personal shoppers are available at the Westin Galleria, Westin Oaks and Inn at the Ballpark. The Hotel & Lodging Association is made up of general managers and hotel owners, suppliers, service companies and consultants for the hospitality industry.

A Dallas company says it will build a fuel-efficient ethanol refinery in northeast Texas to produce 100 million gallons of fuel. Panda Group says the Sherman County plant will annually refine about 40 million bushels of corn and milo into clean-burning fuel for vehicles. The new plant will gasify more than a billion pounds of cattle manure annually to generate the steam used to make the ethanol. Sherman County officials say construction and ongoing operations are expected to infuse more than $220 million into the area’s economy over the next ten years. It will take about 18 months to build the plants, which will each employ about 60 workers. Another of the company’s planned plants under construction in Hereford is slated to be the largest biomass-fueled ethanol plant in the country.

American farmers and ranchers who’ve been hard-hit by drought are getting some relief from Washington. The Associated Press has learned that the Bush administration is giving nearly $800 million to help them recover. It includes $50 million in block grants for states, and $18 million from emergency conservation funds. And the Agriculture Department is speeding-up $700 million in planned payments to cotton, grain, sorghum and peanut farmers. The administration has resisted a $4 billion drought aid plan in Congress because it would go only to those who already get government subsidies. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced the aid this afternoon in South Dakota. Last month was the hottest July since the dust bowl of the 1930s.

Cornerstone Healthcare Group is opening a new long-term acute care hospital in Houston in the Life Science Plaza, according to the Houston Business Journal. The new facility will offer ventilator weaning, complex wound care and other specialized programs for medically complex patients. Austin-based Cornerstone operates 12 such hospitals in four states.

Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas is selling its offshore and south Louisiana properties to Phoenix Exploration of Houston in a $340 deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. Cabot expects to buy back some stock and meet financial obligations with the proceeds. Cabot still owns interest onshore in the Gulf Coast, the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

Houston contract oil and gas driller Rowan Cos. has a $45 million contract to drill four wells offshore Trinidad, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Rowan Gorilla III will soon relocate to Trinidad in the contract with Houston-based EOG Resources.

A new Houston office is being opened by Baltimore-based ESI Global Logistics, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston office will initially serve as a sales office. ESI Global Logistics provides freight services and ocean freight shipments, employing 30 people in five offices.

For many film school students, interning on a movie set means fetching coffee, running errands or redirecting traffic on streets closed for a shoot. For University of Texas students in Austin, it can mean anything from maintaining $100,000 worth of camera equipment to shooting the photos to be used to promote the film. It can also mean compiling the extra features to be included on the DVD. Through a unique partnership with a for-profit production company, the UT Film Institute lets students work alongside established professionals on the set of low-budget independent films. The three-year-old partnership’s first fil “the quiet”–hits theaters nationwide Friday. Thirty-six students worked on all stages of production for the edgy thriller about a dysfunctional family and the mute orphan who comes to live with them. Grad student apprentices took on key roles such as DVD producer and assistant editor. Undergrad interns from the university’s film, theater, architecture, business and liberal arts schools helped with tasks from accounting and office management to set production, costume and casting.

The Women’s Business Enterprise Alliance is compiling a virtual time capsule for the Women’s Archive Research Center for the University of Houston Library Special Collections. The submission will help chronicle the growth of corporate and government relationships with businesses owned and operated by women in the Houston area.

The state’s official government portal has been named best e-government Web site in the nation by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, according to the Houston Business Journal. Researchers analyzed 1,504 sites for various electronic features, including online publications, language translation, disability access, privacy policies, security and the number of online services. Last year, the Texas site ranked number 18. The site serves as a gateway to more than 500 services offered online, including online sales tax payment for businesses, vehicle registration renewals and a searchable license records database. There is a Spanish version of nearly every page.

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