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UNT System: Resource magazine >> Economic indicators

Economic indicators: UNT researcher's studies help cities grow and the state progressBernard Weinstein, Ph.D., is increasingly finding that his words and work as director of the University Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas can help evaluate and even guide changes in the Texas economy.
Bernard Weinstein and Terry Clower     The UNT professor of applied economics provides information through CEDR that influences state and local public policies and industries by mapping out economic possibilities for clients like nonprofit organizations, businesses and Texas communities.
   Weinstein uses the center's studies to determine the likely results of a client's steps toward economic diversification. He might examine how a town once dependent on oil money can make a transition to an economy supported by tourism. Or he might help determine the impact of a new form of public transportation on a city's economy. The studies indicate how certain moves can either hinder or help the general public.
   For example, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail system became a reality in 1996. Every day it glides into the lives of thousands of Texans from North Dallas to Southern Dallas, carrying them to work, recreation and back home. But the city did not know how the rail would affect its communities and workers. Researchers at CEDR looked at county property tax rolls and interviewed local businesses, property owners and real estate agents. They determined that the rail system increased property values.
   Consequently, the DART study has become a means to promote the light rail system and its growth. Cities outside the state, such as Denver, are using the center's Dallas study as a tool to forecast the outcomes of instituting their own light rail systems.

Public service
   Each CEDR study answers specific questions posed by a municipality, political group or organization that may affect community members or the economies upon which they rely.
   Depending on the issue, Weinstein and CEDR associate director Terry Clower, Ph.D., interview key figures residents, politicians, community leaders and examine financial data, demographics, business information, natural resources and other areas to determine the client's assets and challenges.
   Dan S. Petty is president of the North Texas Commission, a 400-member organization that promotes economic growth in the Metroplex and studies issues affecting education, air quality, work force development and population change in the region. Petty says CEDR is often called upon to study the quality of life in North Texas and increase the area's visibility both nationally and internationally.
   "We correspond with the center's researchers on a regular basis to get their opinions on each of our projects to promote the area," says Petty, whose organization is made up of hundreds of businesses, cities, counties and public institutions. "They provide us with an accurate picture of what this region has to offer and the areas we must improve to draw needed industry."
   Weinstein calls CEDR a natural extension of UNT's role as a public institution. He says it provides a public service by spurring economic growth and applying academic knowledge to public policy.
   "We try to bring light to community issues," Weinstein says. "This is not your typical academic research because we deal with real-world problems it's the commitment we make as an urban, civic-oriented institution."
   Along with its immediate resources, the center brings together experts from the various disciplines of the university, from the Survey Research Center to the Department of Sociology, to determine outcomes for each problem.
   "We're putting UNT out there and creating an awareness of the breadth of resources we can offer to communities," Clower says.

Changing legislation
   Since CEDR's creation in 1989 to conduct economic analysis and public policy research, its researchers have prepared more than 60 reports covering a broad range of issues affecting the Metroplex and other Texas communities. Topics include building new airports and health care facilities and combating homelessness. Each report takes from three months to as much as a year to complete.
In 1997, <a href=CEDR helped a coalition of utilities make the case to the Texas Legislature." A prime example of CEDR's role in shaping public policy can be found in its contribution to the debate over electric power deregulation and the transition to a competitive marketplace in Texas. In 1997, the center was retained by a coalition of investor-owned utilities, including TXU and Reliant, to help make the case that the historically regulated companies should not be left with "stranded" costs in the aftermath of deregulation.
   For decades, the utilities had invested billions of dollars in coal, gas and nuclear generating plants, recovering these costs through a guaranteed rate of return. With deregulation, it was feared that revenues might not be adequate to recover investments in some of these plants, resulting in stranded costs. The worst outcome could be bankruptcy for the utility companies and disruption of service for consumers.
   The center recommended that the deregulation bill drafted by the Texas Legislature include a provision assuring that investor-owned utilities be able to recover any stranded costs. The center also advised that the transition to a competitive retail marketplace for electric power be both gradual and cautious, to avoid problems such as the rolling blackouts that have occurred in California.
   "Our study was distributed to every member of the Texas Legislature, and I testified before several committees about our findings and recommendations," says Weinstein.
   Deregulation becomes a reality in Texas in 2002, and the bill passed in 1997 guarantees that investor-owned utilities will be able to recover any stranded costs.

Attention on Texas
   Other center studies have been used to draw in new industry from outside the state.
   A CEDR study conducted for the city of Dallas on the technology industry and technology workers is being used as a marketing tool to draw major companies to Texas.
   In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the center performed a survey establishing the needs of the technology industry and determining the resources the area has to offer more than 230,000 trained workers. North Texas communities used the survey to attract high-tech companies to the Alliance Airport area.
   The center has conducted multiple economic studies for other regions of the state, including the Permian Basin. These studies are used to determine what industries the area is best able to accommodate and then to draw in those new industries.
   In addition to determining ways regions can attract industry, the center helps developers show communities the potential positive effects they can bring to the area, Clower says.
   For example, developers asked CEDR to do an economic study on creating a new retirement community, Robson Ranch, now open near Denton. The study found that the retirement community would bring in new income from retired seniors with more leisure time to shop, volunteer and potentially return to school to further their educations. Construction alone was estimated to bring $1.8 billion to Denton County.
   While the center's projects vary to accommodate the needs of each client, its theme remains constant. Weinstein and Clower say the goal is to bring clarity to the issues faced by local communities by offering real-world research that answers real problems.
   "It's our obligation as a state-supported institution to use our intellectual resources to meet public needs," Weinstein says.


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