February 27, 2015

Davenport looking to land cruise line stop

Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi River near Davenport.

Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi River near Davenport.

A cruise line that’s made a name for itself overseas may soon be sailing along eastern Iowa’s riverfront.

You’ve likely seen the TV ads for Viking River Cruises. They offer stunning views of luxury ships steaming up European rivers like the Rhine and the Danube through historic cities in Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary.

The line is planning to launch its first American cruises in 2017, starting in New Orleans and heading up the Mississippi. Details aren’t finalized yet, but Quad Cities officials are already in meetings with Viking to arrange an overnight stop and a daylong series of tours.

Davenport leaders this week approved $500,000 for the city’s River Vision project, which includes a new dock and pier on the riverfront once the floating casino there moves onto land.



AAA Iowa urges motorists to resist urge to fill up before gas tax increase

Gas-pumpThere’s fear of potential “panic buying” of gasoline in Iowa over the next few days as pump prices will rise a dime a gallon on Sunday, thanks to legislators and the governor passing an increase in the state fuel tax.

Rose White, with AAA-Iowa, says there may be a boost in sales at gas stations and convenience stores through Saturday, especially in metro areas along state borders like Sioux City, Omaha/Council Bluffs and the Quad Cities.

“Certainly with the change, there may be some impacted, specifically along the Missouri border as that difference will be almost 15 cents a gallon,” White says. “The other states however, the variances will be minimal.” With the higher tax, Iowa’s gas prices will be about three cents higher than Minnesota, a penny higher than Illinois, six cents higher than Nebraska, and a dime a gallon higher than South Dakota. Wisconsin is the only border state where gas prices will remain higher that Iowa, by about a penny.

The increase of ten cents a gallon may not seem like much, but it can add up. Still, White says to resist the urge to dash out and fill your tank. “We do encourage motorists not to participate in any panic buying just to save ten cents a gallon,” White says. “Instead, we just encourage you to not deviate from your normal fuel purchasing. If a lot of people do go out and buy fuel this weekend, that could actually create some shortages and we certainly do not want that to happen.”

Some gas station owners in Iowa border cities may face a financial squeeze due to the new pricing structure. “Many of them may have to lower their profit margins just to stay competitive, especially along that Missouri route,” White says.

The 15-cent difference between Iowa and Missouri is nothing compared to disparities elsewhere. The gas in New Jersey, for example, is 36-cents lower than neighboring Pennsylvania. This is the first hike in Iowa’s gas tax since 1989, a move that’s expected to generate 215-million dollars a year to benefit road and bridge construction and repairs.


Iowan to testify before Grassley’s Senate committee on stopping human trafficking

Senator Chuck Grassley

Senator Chuck Grassley

A central Iowa man is scheduled to testify before a U.S. Senate panel in Washington D.C. this morning on the issue of human trafficking. Michael Ferjak of Des Moines, is a senior criminal investigator with the Iowa Department of Justice and heads the Iowa Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley invited Ferjak to testify before the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, as it considers a pair of bills focused on helping the victims of human trafficking. Grassley says, “He’s been in law enforcement and prosecution for a long period of time and he has this special position in (Attorney General Tom) Miller’s office, there in Des Moines, working on these issues.”

Ferjak is planning to testify about how Iowa law enforcement recognizes the state’s status as a major transportation hub, with crisscrossing interstate highways. He says it requires a transportation-focused approach to prevent human trafficking.

“The whole hearing is devoted to the issue of human trafficking and I want him to bring the Midwestern experience to bare because I think too often we think of this as just a big city issue, like a West Coast or an East Coast or a Chicago issue,” Grassley says. “We want to make sure the rural parts of our country are getting proper attention.” Legislation was introduced by Grassley last week which aims to deter human trafficking. He says it would clarify that federal resources can be used to meet the housing needs of trafficking victims and offer training on the effects of sex trafficking to those who serve runaway, homeless and at-risk youth.

It would update the federal statute that authorizes the cyber tip line of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to ensure child trafficking is specifically mentioned as a form of Internet-related child exploitation. Grassley says the legislation would also require the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking to identify best practices to prevent human trafficking. “So we have two bills before the committee,” Grassley says. “I think they’ll be voted out Thursday without too much problem.”

Coincidentally, another Iowan will testify today before another panel at Senator Grassley’s request. Clay Mitchell, of Buckingham, will be speaking before the Senate Agriculture Committee as part of a panel of producers who use various programs in the farm bill. Mitchell’s testimony will focus on the 2014 farm bill and several of its programs including: Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC), crop insurance, the Conservation Reserve Program and wetland mitigation. Mitchell owns and farms 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans in northeast Iowa.


State set to name 20th bird conservation area

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Watching birds and other wildlife is a hobby that’s growing in popularity and “ecotourism” means big money for Iowa.

Bruce Ehresman, a wildlife diversity biologist for the Iowa DNR, says people love to get away from their otherwise-stressful lives and take in the simple beauty of an Iowa countryside, while enjoying the challenge of spotting a host of creatures in their natural habitats.

“Watchable wildlife is a huge industry in the state,” Ehresman says. “It brings in $318-million a year to the state, a small portion of that ends up being spent on conservation measures, but it’s still income for the state, it’s an economic boom. In fact, 2011 was the first time that watching wildlife was actually bringing in more money to the state than hunting.” Iowa started designating Bird Conservation Areas in 2001 and is planning to name its 20th such area next month in a ceremony in northwest Iowa.

The Waterman Prairie Wildlife Management Area in O’Brien County, along with part of the Little Sioux River watershed, will become a Bird Conservation Area on March 7th. It’s already a bird haven, Ehresman says, with many thriving flocks. “So far, we’ve documented 253 different species of birds,” Ehresman says. “A little over half of those are migrants, at least 108 are birds that have nested there at one time or another.”

The Waterman Prairie encompasses about 68,000 acres of land, with nearly a third of it grassland. That’s vital habitat for feathered friends, many of which are endangered or threatened species — like the northern harrier, which has been spotted in the vicinity. “The reason we’re doing this is because over time, we’re probably going to lose more species from the state that once nested here,” Ehresman says, “and we’re trying to make an effort to keep those around.”

The list includes the upland sandpiper, bobolink, ring-necked pheasant, American woodcock and red-headed woodpecker, while the area is also a stopover habitat for many other bird species suffering nationwide declines. The new Bird Conservation Area is one of Iowa’s most important grassland and savanna-rich habitats, he says, and it includes special areas like the Bertram Reservation, Buena Vista County Conservation Park, and Wittrock Indian Village State Preserve and National Historic Landmark.


John Deere reports drop in first quarter earnings

Deere logoIowa’s largest manufacturing employer is reporting first quarter earnings today that reflect a significant drop from a year ago. Quad Cities-based Deere and Company shows net income for the quarter at nearly $387 million, compared to $681 million in the first quarter last year. That’s a slide of $294 million.

Deere spokesman Ken Golden says the news is not a surprise. “We had projected the global farm economy was going to be sluggish this year, but we’re also coming off of some really high, record years, so you have to put that in perspective,” Golden says. “The report we put out today is all about the sluggish farm economy but also our diverse lineup, because construction and forestry and financial services had higher profits.” Worldwide net sales and revenues for the first quarter fell 17 percent, to around $6.4 billion, down from $7.6 billion last year.

The report also shows net sales of the equipment operations were down $1.3 million. “Yes, we’re down from a year ago but this is about where we thought we would be,” Golden says. “We had projected going into the year that it was going to be a soft year, especially in large agricultural machinery which is really sort of a sweet spot for John Deere.”

Last month, Deere announced indefinite layoffs at five locations that build ag equipment. That includes roughly 565 workers at three locations in Waterloo, 300 at the Des Moines Works in Ankeny and 45 at the Harvester Works in East Moline, Illinois. About 500 employees at Deere’s Seeding and Cylinder facility in Moline, Illinois, also will go on an extended shutdown to adjust inventory.

Golden was asked if more job cuts loom. “We have taken the action that we needed to take based on what we knew,” Golden says. “We knew that industry sales were going to be softer, especially in agriculture. We have taken those job actions and we are hopeful that more are not going to be needed.” Besides Iowa and the Midwest, farmers in many parts of the world have struggled with drought and other severe weather issues in recent years, while last year, prices for many key U.S. commodities took a nose-dive.

Golden says it was expected that the sale of ag equipment, like big tractors and combines, would take a hit. “If you compare large ag sales from just two years ago, we’re down 50%,” Golden says. “The good news is, we’re a much better company and net income is higher than it would have been in those types of decreases in the past.” Looking ahead, Deere equipment sales are projected to drop 17-percent for fiscal 2015 and be down about 19-percent for the second quarter compared with year-ago periods.

A Deere news release says, “…even with a continued pullback in the agricultural sector, John Deere expects to remain solidly profitable in 2015. Our forecast reflects a level of results much better than we’ve experienced in previous downturns. This illustrates our success establishing a wider range of revenue sources and a more durable business model.”


Toastmasters works with chapters in 3 Iowa prisons

Toastmasters-LogoA nonprofit educational group dedicated to helping its members improve communication, public speaking and leadership skills is finding success — in Iowa’s prisons.

Toastmasters International has a 90-year history with more than 300,000 members in 126 countries. Among the dozens of Toastmasters chapters in Iowa, three are behind the walls of state correctional facilities.

Don Wadleigh is the prison club committee chairman for the region and says they plan to add more prison chapters statewide. “We’ve got active clubs in the state pen in Fort Madison and also in Fort Dodge and we’re just getting started in the women’s prison in Mitchellville,” Wadleigh says. “We’re also talking to Oakdale, Anamosa, Newton, all of the prisons in Iowa.”

In addition, he’s revived a Toastmasters club at the Quad Cities-area prison in East Moline, Illinois. Each prison club has between 25 and 35 members, Wadleigh says, and the inmates who take part look forward to bettering themselves and their surroundings once released.

Wadleigh says, “Most of the fellas are coming out and saying, ‘You know, I really need to do something to give back to my community to make sure the other guys don’t follow my path,’ and that seems to be a real common thread.”

Many former inmates continue on with Toastmasters on the outside, Wadleigh says, and they’re enthusiastic about starting over after serving their time.

“They were in situations where they didn’t have much choice and they made a bad decision because that may’ve been the only decision available to them,” Wadleigh says, “but now that they’ve had exposure to Toastmasters, they are on their way out. We have very close to a zero recidivism rate.”

For the overall state prison population, Wadleigh says the number of inmates who return to prison after release is closer to 35%.

Wadleigh, who’s retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, lives in the Mississippi River town of Oquawka, Illinois, just upriver from Burlington.


Bitter cold spreads across the state


Bundle up, as bitter cold is gripping Iowa. The promised Arctic cold front has arrived and the entire state is under a Wind Chill Advisory which extends out across much of the Midwest.

Meteorologist Aubry Wilkins, at the National Weather Service office in Johnston, says temperatures are about 30-degrees colder than normal. “We have temperatures in the single-digits below zero to right around zero and the winds are very strong from the northwest with gusts up to 25 to 30 miles an hour,” Wilkins says. “This is combining wind chill values to 20 to even some areas have had 30 degrees below zero for wind chills.”

Iowans will have to endure the freezing weather another few days and she admits, even the slight warm-up in the forecast isn’t very warm.

“Our warmest day will be on Friday and we’re going to see a high, in Des Moines at least, right around freezing,” Wilkins says, “but then it’s going to get back into those below-freezing highs for the weekend and into early next week.” Flurries flew in many parts of Iowa on Tuesday and there’s a possibility for more flakes in the forecast.

“There are a couple of chances for some snowfall across the state, Thursday into Friday is a good chance,” Wilkins says. “As far as significant amounts, you might see some snowfall totals of one to two inches and that will probably be about it.” The normal high temperature for today’s date in Des Moines is 37-degrees, while it’s only forecast to reach a high of eight-degrees. Get more details about your forecast at www.weather-.gov.