Mississippi economic growth predicted to rise in 2013

JACKSON — Economists say growth and employment should increase in Mississippi next year, led by an improved housing market and an increase in home construction.

Forecasters discussed their outlook at a Tuesday conference held by the College Board in Jackson.

Mississippi’s economy is predicted to grow 1.6 percent in 2013, compared to an expansion of only 0.5 percent this year. Payroll employment in the state should grow 1 percent, compared to staying flat or barely shrinking in 2012. Mississippi will slightly lag the nation in both output and employment growth

The economists assume Congress and President Barack Obama will at least temporarily avoid the year-end package of spending cuts and tax increases being called the “fiscal cliff.” If not, the nation and state could see a brief recession in 2013′s first half.

Memphis restaurant caught mislabeling catfish

A Memphis television station recently reported that The Dixie Café was selling Vietnamese farmed pangasius labeled as “catfish” and failed to properly identify the fish to consumers. Under federal law, only American channel catfish (ictalurus) may be sold as catfish.

The FDA said it only physically inspects between one and two percent of fish imports, meaning 98 percent or more of imported pangasius eaten by Americans has not been inspected at all for safety. In sharp contrast, Bill Battle, a U.S. Catfish farmer in the Memphis metropolitan area said the FDA inspects his operation once a month. “If they found any of the dangerous additives frequently found in Vietnamese fish in my fish, they would shut me down,” Mr. Battle added.

As reported by media and consumer organizations across the nation, as much as 50 percent of seafood Americans eat in restaurants is mislabeled. Often, cheap and potentially tainted Vietnamese pangasius is illegally sold as other, more expensive species including catfish and grouper. The states of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee require restaurants to label the country of origin (COOL) of catfish served. The federal government, however, has no such requirement, and not every state law covers pangasius, which is often served as “catfish.”

McAlister’s announces sales growth

The sweet tea, sandwiches and spuds really are that good.

McAlister’s Deli announced today its ninth consecutive quarter of positive comparable sales growth, according to a company statement.

Third-quarter same-store sales at company-owned restaurants were up 6.9 percent and franchise restaurants were up 7 percent.

According to a McAlister’s  spokeswoman, the growth is attributed to, “the restaurant chain’s commitment to offering quality food and genuine hospitality to guests.”

Founded in 1989 in Oxford, McAlister’s is currently owned by Roark Capital and plans to expand its franchises to additional cities in Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Mississippi and abortion the subject of one national political columnist

In this column, Robert Shrum says sensible Republicans seeking to renew the viability of a conservative party that seems out of touch after a stinging defeat at the polls are being denounced as ‘heretics.’ Shrum says the party might never find its way back.

Later in the piece, Shrum says …

One of Limbaugh’s targets, Steve Schmidt, a veteran of Bush 2004, who managed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection and John McCain’s 2008 campaign, was at NYU’s post-election conference at Villa La Pietra in Florence. The Republicans and Democrats there, both analysts and leading actors in the Obama and Romney efforts, heard senior Romney adviser Kevin Madden, a convinced conservative, regret that his candidate had been pushed so far to the right during the primary season. Alex Castellanos, who worked for Romney four years ago, called for a “bottom up” conservatism relevant to middle-class voters, one that offered them clear and persuasive benefits. (He didn’t say “gifts.” He was focused on opportunity.)

Schmidt was blunt. The GOP had to abandon the ceaseless pursuit of the last white guy in Mississippi at the expense of alienating the mainstream. He argued a case in point: Republicans should be “a pro-life party,” but not “the anti-contraception” party, which is how Romney sometimes came across as he felt forced to match the über-purist Rick Santorum in the primaries. Castellanos mentioned that since Republicans believe in states’ rights, the answer on abortion might be to reverse Roe v. Wade but then leave the decision on the issue to each state.

STODDER: Natural gas vehicles, like Toyota Prius, face chicken-and-egg syndrome

While the push is under way in some states to provide roadside battery-charging for the thousands of electric cars on the highways, another alternative, the natural-gas-powered vehicle, mostly sits idle.

Anyone who has watched television in the past decade knows about the Chevy Volt and hybrids like the Ford Fusion or the Toyota Prius. But only Honda sells a natural-gas-powered car in the U.S., and it generates little of the kind of buzz reserved for the cars that run on electric power.  Meanwhile, the trucking industry, which could realize enormous fuel savings, is expressing little confidence that natural gas will play a role in its future.

Natural gas vehicles represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all vehicles on U.S. roads.  Observers of the energy industry say the scarcity of fueling stations has hampered the market for natural gas cars and trucks. There is also a general lack of awareness that natural gas could be significantly cheaper than conventional fuels.

The investment website Seeking Alpha wrote that natural gas vehicles “on a grand scale is indeed a dream.”

JOHN STODDER, MBJ blogger

Natural gas vehicles have two great virtues over conventional gas-powered vehicles: less polluting emissions, and an abundant domestic fuel supply that has driven prices significantly below that of conventional gasoline – $1.50 to $2 less per gallon.

But you can’t drive a natural-gas truck or car very far unless you can find a place to fill it up. And that means not just one place, but a network of places. To serve truck fleets, it has to be a network that will keep a long-distance hauler supplied with fuel.

The capital to set up such a network has not been assembled, although new efforts are underway.  Meanwhile, on a much smaller scale, a few entrepreneurs are building local fueling stations, designed primarily to allow their own businesses to benefit from the fuel cost savings.

Some want to change that situation by building their own infrastructure, on whatever scale they need. Both small entrepreneurs and large companies are yielding to the temptation to compete for drivers’ dollars by offering a fuel that, at current prices, would save $1.50 to $2 a gallon.

In Kenner, La., a local plumber, Steve Chambers, bought off of Craigslist a fleet of used natural-gas trucks and some gas compressors. He built his own natural-gas compressor station to fuel his fleet, now up to 15 vehicles, according to New Orleans City Business.

Finance & Commerce of Minnesota reports that four local waste haulers are replacing diesel trucks with compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. Matt Walter, the president of MacNeilus, the nation’s largest manufacturer of garbage- and cement-hauling trucks, told Finance & Commerce that he expects half of the vehicles made by MacNeilus will run on CNG.

Larger companies are also signaling a desire to tap into the natural gas glut. General Electric Co. and Chesapeake Energy Corp. recently announced that they will collaborate on projects to improve access both to CNG and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can be used by the trucking industry.

That project will include building 250 modular CNG compression stations, which the joint venture has trademarked as “CNG in a Box.” According to the firms’ announcement, installing these modules at existing fueling stations and other locations “will provide the core infrastructure to enable expanded access to CNG.”

Clean Energy, co-founded by T. Boone Pickens, is raising money to build “America’s Natural Gas Highway,” a network of 150 LNG fueling stations along U.S. interstate highways and in major urban areas. By comparison, as of 2002, according to the Census Bureau, there were 117,000 gasoline stations in the U.S. But 150 stations would at least be a start.

Two Detroit manufacturers plan to roll out CNG-burning pickup trucks in 2012. Chrysler will sell a version of its Ram truck, while General Motors will sell CNG versions of two pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 HD.

However, to many energy market watchers, this activity won’t be enough to overcome the chicken-and-egg syndrome.

“If there are no cars, then why would there be refueling stations? And if there are no refueling stations, then why would there be cars?” said HIS Cambridge Energy Research Associates researcher Tiffany Goode in the Fuel Fix blog.

According to a survey commissioned by PLS Logistics, a freight-management firm, executives at freight carriers are aware of the potential for LNG to be used to fuel their trucks, with nearly 30 percent reporting they were “actively researching” the technology. However, of the 100 executives surveyed by PLS, none said they were planning to purchase an LNG-powered vehicle in 2012.

The primary barrier the study found was “the inadequacy of the LNG fueling infrastructure,” which was mentioned by more than half the executives. The cost of an LNG truck, estimated at $30,000-$50,000 higher than for a conventional truck, was mentioned by a quarter of the respondents.

Pain may finally break through such barriers. Gas prices might be high now, but perhaps they aren’t high enough. As Seeking Alpha wrote, “Perhaps the onus rests on a consistently high gasoline price – as much as it is on a low-cost natural gas environment – to push on development going forward.”

– John Stodder