Thursday, September 10, 2009

On the Value of Professional Conferences

So, I'm at yet another conference this week -- the Governor's Conference on Economic Development. At least it's at the Hyatt Regency so I can walk there from the office.

Likewise, I attended (and technically was on a planning committee for) the National Institute of Government Purchasing (NIGP) Forum also held downtown, at America's Center about 2 1/2 weeks ago.

I really can't complain that much -- when you have zero travel expenses and you can walk to these statewide and national events, the time goes by pretty quickly.

Especially given that so many jobs have scaled back a lot on travel, you gotta take what you can get. Sometimes I wish we had less travel even.

Conferences get really tedious sometimes. I usually prefer going to training seminars where you have a lot more focus on a single topic, and get to meet new people.

For example, it took six months to get approval for me to take a Construction Contracting class through ESI International. By that time, the nearest session (in Chicago) had been canceled because of low enrollment, so I headed off to Arlington, VA instead. I made sure to minimize expenses, staying at a moderately priced suites hotel (quite reasonable for the D.C. area, really). And I got the class for about 50% off the course fee, because of discounts I had on file.

In that class, I met people from all over the U.S., as well as some USAID personnel stationed on the West Bank and in Mozambique.

In general, I've noticed that, while the structured training sessions may provide some useful information, the unstructured time like breaks, exhibit halls, etc. often leads to better conversations on a one-on-one basis with colleagues. And then of course there's the after-hours events, in which I admit I don't always take part, but which often provide much more useful information than anything else.

So many conversations happen and decisions are made at these kinds of events, that are totally unrelated to the formal agenda.

I'm sure it's a lot different in the actual business world, though, where money actually changes hands and deals are made at these kinds of events. When you are dealing with government agencies though, it's more about relationship building, since there are (at least on paper) competitive bidding processes to determine future business relationships.

But again, it does feel really weird to be participating in these kinds of activities, knowing that so many people out there -- including many close to home -- are struggling to make ends meet. Our jobs as economic development people are to help maximize the return on the public dollars invested in these programs, which hopefully will lead to job creation and retention locally.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

I am back, probably

Hello world!

OK, so I know I've been non-blogging for too damned long.

I finished my dissertation this past April and graduated from WashU on May 15.

So that represents my magnum opus of commentaries on St Louis politics, which occupied most of my 'free' time over the past two years or so.

Of course, I hope my future does not hold the same fate as that one other guy who was a STL native and got a PhD in poli sci at WashU. Hmmm.

Really, though, most academics would tell you their dissertation was the worst thing they ever wrote. It may be bound and put in the library, but it's not really a publication. It is a degree-completion requirement.

But it's a really nice feeling to see your name in print, anyway.

Maybe someday I will have some publications in peer-reviewed journals, but I'm nowhere near that point as yet.

So that's been my big project for the past two years that took most of my energies for writing and thoughtful commentary.

Meanwhile, the opposite of thoughtful commentary -- social networks -- is where I've been found more often lately. I have more-or-less active profiles on:


...and I'm working on GovLoop (where my profile still needs lots of work).

I guess I'm also on Xing but that's one that I have not really used much so I'm not even sure how to find my profile there.

MySpace, well, I'm staying away from that one.

Twitter was particularly fascinating during the Iranian election crisis. Twitter is a very different vehicle because users simply "follow" each other, without claiming to be "Friends" or "Trusted Connections."

I cannot claim that social networks facilitate thoughtful debate on local issues -- but then again, that's not necessarily what political blogs do, either.

Different electronic tools are useful in different situations. The challenge is figuring out what to use when -- and when to ultimately disengage from the technology and instead try to connect with real people in a more meaningful way.

Not that I'm a particular expert on any of this; just some thoughts.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Train Nut

Correction: Thanks be to Tom Shrout for pointing out the last transit tax election was in 1997, not 1998.


Most readers know that I'm a transit geek, despite that -- gasp! -- I've been driving to work for almost a year now.

I can console myself for this treachery against transit, only because:

  1. Since June, I've been carpooling, thanks in part to the handy-dandy RideFinders website operated by Madison County Transit (AKA the green buses).
  2. In my current gig, I gotta go to meetings in St. Charles and other places outside the reach of the transit system, so there's not much choice. I know it's a cop-out, but believe me, once you've tried walking to St. Charles across the very narrow, wind-blown shoulder on the Discovery Bridge (MO 370), you don't try it again! And the problem with the Page Ave (MO 364/Veterans Memorial) Bridge is that, although it has a separate bike route, there's no bus service anywhere near the St. Louis County end. At least 370 has the 34 Earth City bus stopping relatively close by, on Earth City Expressway at Corporate Woods Drive.

At least it does for now, anyway. I am dismayed at the proposition that Metro will have dramatic cuts in its service capacity without yet another sales tax increase.

For what it's worth (not much), I already said "yes" to this particular tax increase -- in 1997. At that time, I was living in St. Louis County, where that Prop M failed. It passed in St. Louis City, where I live now, so we don't have to worry about voting this one. If County voters ok it, the City will start collecting, apparently. Of course, that will make the total tax rate on some items (prepared food at Loughborough Commons, for example, where there's an extra Transportation Development District sales tax), approach or even pass ten percent. That's just crazy.

I wasn't contributing much to the financial health of the system anyway, since for most of the last few years I was literally a "free rider" thanks to the largess of Washington University.

And yes, the use of the word "literally" in the preceding paragraph was brought to you by Joe Biden. ;-)

Biden, I must inform you, is reputedly a daily Amtrak rider. That's just cool beyond words in my book -- although must be a tad expensive. I'm pleasantly surprised it only takes 1 hr 35 min to ride from Washington Union Station to Wilmington, Delaware.

In Missouri, sometimes it can take that long to get from Warrensburg to Sedalia (although the schedule says it should only take 30 minutes...).

We clearly need a stronger State and Federal commitment to bus, light rail, subway, commuter rail, and intercity rail transportation in this country.

Will it happen? I'm hopeful... yet skeptical.

After all, the next administration will have a few, somewhat bigger issues to address.

Anyway, if you are a train and/or transit nut like me, consider joining some like-minded groups. Online, there are several St Louis and Missouri oriented Yahoo! Groups about trains. In real life, there's two local associations I joined earlier this year:

St. Louis Chapter, National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) -- meets 1st Wednesday of each month, 7:00 PM, at Brooking Park retirement community, way way out on MO 141 across from St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield.

St. Louis Railway Enthusiasts -- meets 2nd Thursday of each month (so this month, it's this Thursday, Sept. 13th), 7:30 PM, also at Brooking Park. This is the streetcar-oriented group.