Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

Voices on the road

Nov 25, 2009 17:12 UTC

Homeless for several months, struggling with addiction and a serious health issue, Dale Harvey has now turned his life around. He has gotten clean, had surgery and moved into his own apartment. On Monday when he moved in, he rented a moving truck and offered his services for free to anyone who needed help moving their belongings. Dale tells his story in the multimedia piece above.

ROUTE TO RECOVERY from Carlos Barria on Vimeo.

Audio Slideshow: Stories from the Route to Recovery

Reuters Staff
Nov 13, 2009 18:32 UTC

Reuters Photographer Lucy Nicholson captured these images and stories along the Route to Recovery.

In Austin’s office property market, waiting for something to happen

Nov 9, 2009 18:26 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

AUSTIN, Texas – Chris Perry says that virtually everything that is wrong with Austin’s office property market is global.

“The problems we’re facing are not local in the making,” said Perry, a realtor at AQUILA Commercial, LLC.

The freezing up of the credit markets following the implosion of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 plus the virtual collapse of the global financial sector have left this market in suspended animation. That’s occurred even though Austin has lower unemployment than the national average and none of the structural problems of northern industrial cities like Detroit.

Austin’s housing market has also got off lightly. While some parts of America have seen steep drops in property prices, the median home price in Austin was down just 0.1 percent in the second quarter.

But nothing is happening in the office property market here.

“We haven’t seen a single major transaction in this area this year because no one really knows what properties are really worth,” said Michael Kennedy, president of commercial real estate company Commercial Texas.

Gary Farmer, president of title insurance firm Heritage Title Company of Austin Inc, described the office property market as “constipated.”

“The capital markets are in disarray, debt is hard to come by so everyone is waiting for the market to settle and find out what is the new normal,” he said. “Things are pretty much frozen right now.”

Nationally, some analysts believe that the office property market, and commercial real estate as a whole, has yet to truly suffer following the crisis in U.S. residential real estate.

According to Perry, part of the problem in the office market is that sellers and prospective buyers have vastly different expectations.

“There is a major disconnect between what sellers think they can get for a property and what the vultures out there think they can pay for a property,” he said. “The real value lies somewhere in between, but no one has got there yet.”

Perry said there are doubtless financially distressed office property owners out there who are holding on for now, but cannot do so forever if the market doesn’t pick up.

“There has yet to be some kind of reckoning in the market,” he said. “The majority of people in this business still think that the worst is yet to come.”

Photo by Lucy Nicholson

Click here for more from the Route to Recovery

Elvis lives on in famous Austin Tex-Mex joint

Nov 7, 2009 14:04 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

AUSTIN, Texas– Even before we got to Austin, we were presented with a bold claim by residents – that Austin is home to the best Tex-Mex in the world.

We decided to put this claim to the test and, after consulting with Mike Rollins and Dave Porter of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, we chose Chuy’s.

Apart from the fact that this chain with restaurants in Texas and Tennessee comes highly recommended for the food, we were reminded that the Chuy’s restaurant nearest to us was where Jenna Bush, daughter of former President George W. Bush, ended up in trouble for underage drinking in 2001. If it was good enough for Jenna, we thought, then it was good enough for us.

A popular place – it was a long wait for a table – this Chuy’s also turned out to be a massive memorial to Elvis. Evlis posters on the walls, a guitar decorated with images of The King and a couple of full-on shrines.

One of them was located just inside the front door, complete with a blue bust of Presley with an inscription on it that read “Elvis lives.”

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

Our unflappable waitress Michelle told us that the Elvis shrine had built up over the years with donations from regulars customers who no longer have room for their collections at home.

“Now those customers can come here and see their Elvis memorabilia while they eat,” she said.

There is also the Elvis Presley Memorial Combo on the menu, an artery-congealing medley with enchiladas and queso wings – essentially deep-fried tortillas with melted cheese on them – which The King would doubtless have been proud to eat. Tasty, but deadly.

On the whole the food was good. The fish tacos were great, the fresh salsa with jalapenos was fiery and fantastic and the tortilla chips freshly made. Like the queso wings, the creamy jalapeno sauce was just a little odd and rather dangerous.

Definitely worth a repeat visit for the Elvis memorabilia alone. As for the claim that Austin has the world’s best Tex-Mex, our test was inconclusive, We’ll just have to come back for more.


Photos by Lucy Nicholoson

COMMENT

Oh, please… everyone knows San Antonio has the best Tex-Mex food. Austines are known to travel down the road for the real stuff, not some chain restaraunt. Might as well eat at Taco Bell…

Posted by Jim in SA | Report as abusive

After seven months out of work, a return to self-esteem

Nov 6, 2009 14:14 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

BULLHEAD CITY, Arizona – The past seven months have not been easy for Eric Musser.

In March, Musser lost his job as a blackjack dealer for the second time in six months. The first time was in September last year, when casinos over the river from here in Laughlin, Nevada, were hurting as the economic downturn led to fewer gamblers. Musser, 27, was taken back in December, with fewer shifts and less money, before he was laid off again.

“It’s been a tough time for us,” he said. His girlfriend is studying to become a dental assistant and they have a three-year-old son, so the loss of income has been hard to come to terms with. They have had to live apart in rented rooms because they could not afford to live together.

But trying to find a job has been even harder.

“I applied everywhere for a job – Del Taco’s, K-Mart, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Lowe’s,” he said, rattling off a list of retail and fast food establishments. “But I never got a single call back.”

“I never had trouble finding a job before,” he added, standing outside the mobile home where he rents a room with his dog Lady, a midsize brown mutt with a dusty coat and good nature. “When you keep trying like that and can’t find a job, your self-confidence and self-esteem start going down the drain.”

A week and a half ago Musser got an audition at the Riverside Casino, where staff observed him as he manned blackjack and roulette tables with real customers. He was hired on the spot at $7.55 an hour.

“It feels really good to be back at work.”

Musser said the Riverside is the best casino in town with the best tips – he made $350 in his first three days there.

“Now I’m going to save up and if everything goes well in January I’ll find my own place to rent so we can live together as a family again,” he said.

Photo of Eric Musser by Lucy Nicholson

For more stories from the Route to Recovery, click here

Despite two foreclosures, Bob is still singing

Nov 6, 2009 13:44 UTC

ROUTE-RECOVERY/

BULLHEAD CITY, Arizona – Talking to Bob Kriegh you’d never guess that he had to foreclose on the two homes that were meant to pay his mortgage.

Kriegh is 84 but looks younger. Prior to his 30 years as a computer programmer, he was a singer, including he says with the Washington Opera Company in the 1940s. His business card says “Singing Bob.”

With a chiseled face, pale blue eyes and an unhurried, gravelly voice, Kriegh proved his singing capabilities with an impromptu show tune, though he said his advancing age had robbed him of the ability to commit new songs to memory.

“I’m just a wrinkled old prune,” Kriegh said, standing in the empty living room of one of the homes that went into foreclosure in July. “But God has taken care of me despite all that I’ve done to myself over the years and will take care of me now.”

Kriegh bought a mobile home on this lot 10 years ago for $17,500 when Bullhead City was experiencing rapid growth. Foreclosures and job losses amid a hard recession and housing crisis have brought that growth to an abrupt halt – for now at least – shaving more than 50 percent off median house prices hereabouts.

In 2005 he sold the home to a woman for $35,000 and financed the loan himself. She tore out the mobile home and built this house. But she never made a single mortgage payment to Kriegh, who started foreclosure proceedings in February of this year.

Now he has it on the market for $69,900, which he said would take care of the legal fees and other expenses he has incurred on the property over the past four years.

“This home will sell eventually,” Kriegh said. “I may not make a profit out of it, but I will at least get my money back.”

Just a stone’s throw from this house is another home that he sold for $50,000 in 2007. Again, he acted as the bank on the deal. But the buyer took six months’ rent on the property from a tenant and, after making a couple of interest-only payments, he stopped paying.

The house was foreclosed on in July. The tenant has lost his job at one of the casinos over the river in Laughlin, Nevada, and is working part-time jobs until he finds a new one, so Kriegh is letting him stay there for now.

“He’s a good man and he’s trying hard to find a job. I’ve taken it easy on the rent because he’s finding it hard to make ends meet. I’ll wait a while before I try to sell that house because I can’t throw him out, not while he’s down on his luck.”

Photo of Bob Kriegh by Lucy Nicholson

For more stories from the Route to Recovery, click here

Imperial Valley strives to be small-scale renewable energy capital

Nov 5, 2009 15:49 UTC

EL CENTRO, California – At a time when alternative energy and “green jobs” have become a significant talking point under the administration of Barack Obama, Imperial Valley is pushing to make it a reality.

The Valley –- which locals in this part of southern California also call Imperial County — already has 10 geothermal plants in operation with a combined capacity of around 330 megawatts. Geothermal energy,  extracting power from underground heat, is a constant and sustainable form of generating electricity.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for the Imperial Valley,” which has a high unemployment rate, said Mark Gran, vice president of community relations at CalEnergy. “We’re going to be the renewable energy capital of the world.”

Potential geothermal or other renewable energy projects need to go through a lengthy approval process. But Imperial County officials have streamlined that process to help companies get permits far quicker, in particular for power plants under 50 megawatts. The state of California has more say in larger projects and has a reputation for being a stickler for due process.

“Getting anything done in California is hard,” said Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Tim Kelley. “But it is less hard to get it done here.”

Apart from 360 days of sun a year and suitable geological conditions for geothermal power, the state has mandated that 33 percent of its electricity must come from renewable sources by 2020. Kelley says  companies are falling over themselves to come to Imperial County, where they know the will be welcome.

Some 30 other renewable energy projects — geothermal, solar and wind — are in the permitting process in Imperial County. One geothermal plant has just been built and construction of another will begin next year.

“We have found the optimal way through the process,” said El Centro city manager Ruben Duran. “We recommend to companies that if they want to get approval faster they follow that path. They don’t have to follow those recommendations, but we’ve found that the system works.”

Local officials hope that renewable energy will help lower rising unemployment and help diversify the economy of this rural, largely agricultural community. But one problem Imperial County faces is transmission – getting the power to customers in major markets like San Diego, around 100 miles to the west on the Pacific coast.

“It’s one thing to produce the power, but we need to be able to deliver it to customers,” Kelly said.

The existing infrastructure can handle all of the capacity that the 30 projects currently in the pipeline would require, but not much more.

“Transmission moving forward is going to be a big concern,” Duran said.

Sue Giller, a partner at Valley Solutions Group Inc, which handles public relations for some companies in the area, including one that just opened, said far more needs to be done by California and around the United States to make renewable energy as much of a priority as it is in other countries.

“It’s amazing to me that although Germany doesn’t get much sun that the Germans lead the world in solar technology,” she said. “Something needs to be done to change that.”

For more Route to Recovery stories, click here

(Picture: President Barack Obama speaks about new energy in front of solar panels at the Thunderbirds Hangar at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009.  REUTERS/Jason Reed)

COMMENT

I like this “Amtrak- road to recovery” feature. It is a clever, useful and integral way for Amtrak to get the word out about its services while providing useful news and interesting stories. I wish Verizon and its ilk were that clever and willing to participate in a more up-to-date pluralistic fashion.

Beginning at El Centro

Nov 2, 2009 19:39 UTC

MEXICO

When planning for a trip across America that would both take in a broad swath of territory and also highlight some of the worst and best spots in the U.S. economy today, El Centro in southern California was a no-brainer.

Not only is El Centro located in one of the states worst affected by the housing crisis and the recession – California faces a major fiscal crisis and was reduced earlier this year to paying its bills with IOUs – but it is in Imperial County, which has the country’s highest unemployment rate.

As of September, the jobless rate in this county down by the Mexican border stood at 30.1 percent. Even taking into account the fact that much of the workforce here is seasonally employed in the agricultural sector, that is an astounding number.

We’re here to find out what else has driven this county’s unemployment rate to such crazy levels and see what impact this has had on the local people. With the Mexican border just a stone’s throw away and illegal immigration such a contentious issue in American national politics, we also want to swing by the local state border patrol and get their take on falling immigration numbers.

One question for them and for the locals on our travels hereabouts: has “El Norte” lost any of its appeal amid the downturn?

COMMENT

At least you can get good huevos rancheros and chile rellanos in El Centro while you see Cher’s birthplace.
But, Imperial Cty, which is in the Desert therefore dependent on irrigation water drawn from the Colorrado River, has had to “give” much of it’s Colorado water allocation to San Diego Cty, which is on the Pacific. This has forced many farms in the Nation’s “Salad Bowl” to go fallow (stop planting). And, cost factors and explosive golf course growth in the Desert have caused the grape growers and others to “off-shore” their farming operations into Baja California Norte (Mexico). Where they’re getting the water is a guess because We (the US) have stolen Mexico’s Colorado River water allocation ‘fair n’ square’.
What’s in your mouth, America?
I’ll take “illegal immigration”, thank you very much.

Posted by Whittier5 | Report as abusive

Introducing the Route to Recovery

Reuters Staff
Oct 28, 2009 17:13 UTC

A woman wears a "Keep it Made in America" pin as she participates in a labour activists march in Lansing, Michigan June 1, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

It would be an understatement to say America has had a tough time lately. After many heady boom years, the bursting of America’s housing bubble led to the near meltdown of the global financial system and the longest, deepest recession since the 1930s.

The downturn some have called the Great Recession began in December 2007 and may already be ending. But U.S. unemployment stands at nearly 10 percent, and much of the economy’s growth has been fueled by government spending in programs like Cash for Clunkers and the first-time home buyer’s credit.

The trillion-dollar question for America is whether the growth of the past quarter is sustainable. Reuters will be attempting to find out this month, in a cross-country trip through the epicenters of the recession and the recovery. Reporter Nick Carey, photographers Brian Snyder, Lucy Nicholson and Carlos Barria, and Reuters TV producer Sharon Reich will be on the road for three weeks starting on Nov 3.

From El Centro, California, with the highest unemployment rate in the country, to Austin, Texas, which has been hit comparatively lightly by the recession, the team will seek out answers at the ground level.

  • How have ordinary Americans fared through this long downturn and what are their hopes and fears as the grim year of 2009 drags slowly toward its close?
  • How are everyday people faring in Bentonville, Arkansas, home of the behemoth retailer Wal-Mart, which has thrived as Americans look to cut household spending?
  • What happened to the dreams of retirees who bought homes during the boom in Bullhead City, Arizona?
  • Do shrimp fishermen in Alabama have anything in common with out-of-work bankers in Charlotte, North Carolina?

You can follow the team’s travels on our Route to Recovery page, with an interactive map featuring news, pictures and video from the towns they visit.

Nick, Brian, Lucy, Carlos and Sharon will also be filing updates from Twitter. You can send us your own questions and comments using the Twitter hashtag #routetorecovery, or by clicking “Add a Comment” in the live blog window.

Do you live in one of the towns we’re visiting? We want to hear from you.

COMMENT

Commercial realestate has crashed in arizona my house was in an excellent location.Not now.You cant even give away downtown prime central phoenix realestate.The vultures are everywhere wanting something for nothing.The government should have let the too big to fail banks fail.Im losing my home and they have no real help.I didnt even pay much for my home but will lose it.I got a home loan modification which is reported negatively on my credit.But no help on horizon to consolidate my loans to survive.ITS EITHER GONNA SELL OR ITS GOING TO THE AUCTION SO BOTH BANKS CAN SHARE IN MY JOY!

Posted by Mikey | Report as abusive
  •