Nuns, strip­pers to be next-door neigh­bors

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY AN­DREA BILLUPS

On one side of the fence are women in habits and wim­ples who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obe­di­ence.

On the other side of that fence, if a de­vel­oper gets his way, will be women in G-strings in the busi­ness of nu­dity, dol­lars and pruri­ence.

The scene for the clash be­tween these two com­pet­ing vi­sions of fem­i­nin­ity is a re­tire­ment home for nuns in Chicago’s western sub­urbs, which is sched­uled to have soon as a neigh­bor a gi­ant $3 mil­lion strip club.

Get It gen­tle­men’s club is on track to open this spring in the 5,000-res­i­dent vil­lage of Stone Park, Ill., just feet from

ris­ing, thanks to the drop in de­mand for heat this win­ter and new ex­trac­tion tech­niques that have pro­duced a sur­plus of gas from shale rock for­ma­tions.

This has left con­sumers with more fi­nan­cial cush­ion against the shock of rapidly ris­ing pump prices, Mr. Thompson said. Na­tion­wide, the av­er­age price for a gal­lon of reg­u­lar gas last week hit $3.84, a record for this time of year, AAA re­ported, and the price is ex­pected to keep ris­ing through Me­mo­rial Day as re­finer­ies pre­pare the more ex­pen­sive su­per-re­fined gaso­line blends re­quired dur­ing the peak sum­mer driv­ing sea­son.

Gas prices in the Washington area, at $4.08 on av­er­age, are sub­stan­tially higher than the na­tional av­er­age, hav­ing al­ready ex­ceeded the $4 thresh­old as they have in other ma­jor cities on the East and West coasts.

“Con­sumers are not show­ing any no­tice­able sign of vul­ner­a­bil­ity” so far, and are not for­go­ing dis­cre­tionary pur­chases be­cause they’ve had to pay more for gas, Mr. Thompson said, although that could hap­pen if prices keep es­ca­lat­ing.

In fact, rather than ca­pit­u­late to high gas prices, con­sumers went on a shop­ping spree, push­ing re­tail sales to all-time highs in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary.

With gaso­line pur­chases ac­count­ing for only about 5 per­cent of all con­sumer spend­ing in the U. S., Mr. Thompson said, it would take a much big­ger spike in prices — to about $5 a gal­lon — to shake con­sumers and threaten the econ­omy.

Jerry Web­man, chief econ­o­mist with Op­pen­heimer Funds, also is im­pressed with con­sumers’ re­silience in the face of high pump prices.

“Though con­sumers may be ner­vous about gas prices, they’re still find­ing a way to get to the mall” and spend on cloth­ing, sport­ing goods and myr­iad other items, he said. “Mild weather has no doubt been help­ing.”

But the out­look could “turn gloomy,” he said. “Par­tic­u­larly for mid­dle­and lower- in­come shop­pers, pricier gas could yet put a dent in spend­ing,” he said. “I’d con­sider fuel costs to be to­day’s most se­ri­ous threat to the on­go­ing U.S. eco­nomic ex­pan­sion.”

While an­a­lysts ex­pect pump prices to flirt with new highs of more than $4 na­tion­wide by Me­mo­rial Day, most do not ex­pect a ma­jor spike to $5 un­less war breaks out in the Mid­dle East over Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions. S&P and other ma­jor fore­cast­ers gen­er­ally put the odds of that hap­pen­ing at less than 1 in 5.

Still, few would un­der­es­ti­mate the pow­er­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of the gas spike. Mo­tor fuel prices ar­guably are the most vis­i­ble prices in the con­sumer uni­verse be­cause they are posted in bold nu­mer­als. More­over, wide­spread dis­con­tent with the surge in gas prices this year has been fanned by po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ers and chron­i­cled breath­lessly by the me­dia.

“Amer­i­cans are feel­ing the pump price pinch. Ris­ing or fall­ing gaso­line prices have a large in­flu­ence on con­sumer” think­ing, said Chris G. Christopher, an econ­o­mist at IHS Global In­sight. He noted that high gas prices are damp­en­ing a re­cent re­vival of con­sumer con­fi­dence and rais­ing wor­ries about in­fla­tion.

“All bets are off if there is any ma­jor dis­rup­tion in the world oil sup­ply,” he said.

Still, more pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments in the econ­omy, in­clud­ing this win­ter’s low home-heat­ing bills, are pro­vid­ing a coun­ter­weight for con­sumers, he said.

“Gaso­line prices are start­ing to rear their ugly head,” he said, but “job prospects are look­ing brighter, food price in­creases have slowed, the stock mar­ket is feel­ing good, and heat­ing bills are lower due to un­sea­son­ably warmer weather.”

The help peo­ple got from lower heat­ing bills could be seen vividly in a re­port on con­sumer prices that the La­bor Depart­ment re­leased Fri­day. While gaso­line prices surged by 6 per­cent dur­ing the month, nat­u­ral gas prices fell by 3.4 per­cent, lim­it­ing the over­all gain in con­sumer en­ergy prices dur­ing the month to 3.2 per­cent.

The fall in nat­u­ral- gas prices helped to hold the cost of electricity flat dur­ing the three months of win­ter, help­ing peo­ple who heat their homes with electricity. Only con­sumers in the North­east who heat their homes with fuel oil saw price gains. The cost of fuel oil, which like gaso­line is de­rived from crude oil, rose 2.8 per­cent last month.

The low cost of most home util­i­ties this win­ter also helped mod­er­ate hous­ing costs, which have been ris­ing at about 2 per­cent a year, the depart­ment said.

Harm Band­holz, chief U.S. econ­o­mist with Uni­credit Re­search, said con­sumers are ben­e­fit­ing tremen­dously from “the huge ex­cess sup­ply of nat­u­ral gas in the U.S.” even as oil prices are go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion as a re­sult of ris­ing geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sions in the Mid­dle East.

Like many other econ­o­mists, he ex­pects the jump in pump prices to sub­side in a few months af­ter the sum­mer driv­ing sea­son winds down, keep­ing the over­all in­fla­tion rate for con­sumers at be­nign lev­els of about 2 per­cent.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Gas pur­chases ac­count for only about 5 per­cent of all con­sumer spend­ing in the U.S. It would take a much big­ger spike in prices — to about $5 a gal­lon — to shake con­sumers and threaten the econ­omy. Gas prices in the Washington area, at $4.08 on av­er­age, are sub­stan­tially higher than the na­tional av­er­age.

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