October 14, 2013

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Augusta’s Master Plan for Revitalization

Lee Epstein, attorney and land use planner working for sustainability in the mid-Atlantic region, recently discussed Augusta’s master plan for revitalization, on the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) Staff Blog. Below is a summary and highlight of the key points covered. 

augusta streets

The city of Augusta has many faces: some see the sweet green golf courses with fiendish sand traps, while others see it as their home, a heart of the South and third-largest city in the state.

Distressingly, the city has begun to lose its luster, in tune with many other great cities in the United States. These cities are fading due to a combination of empty downtown areas and an increase in suburban sprawl.

The neighborhoods could definitely do with some renovation. Not all is lost, however; the Augusta Sustainable Development Implementation Program has come up with intensive plans to revitalize this old Southern belle of a city.

The Augusta Sustainable Development Implementation Program (ASDIP) has paired up with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to use one of their challenge grants to revitalize Augusta and its empty neighborhoods. The project’s main goal is to upgrade Augusta, injecting sustainable economic development, enhanced transportation, and improved neighborhoods to bring the city back to life. The program is focused on results, not just plans.

regency mallThey hope to work wonders on Downtown Augusta – ranging from the 4.5 mile long Dean’s Bridge Road, to the Regency Mall and through the neighborhoods near the rail yards. Like many malls in America, Regency Mall slowly faded and then died, becoming an abandoned relic. With the ASDIP program in place, it would become a village center, while the neighborhoods leading to the mall would offer the basic amenities needed to sustain a bustling community. These would include farmer’s markets, grocery stores, medical clinics, and small restaurants – all the ingredients needed to create a successful neighborhood. During the rebuilding process, they will also add some mixed-unit and higher density housing, though older neighborhoods will likely remain untouched.

Another large focus of the project would be transportation. Without accessibility, the revitalized sections would never flourish. Many elderly or mid-to-lower income residents don’t have cars or do not drive, so a renewed public transport system will be required to ferry them to the rejuvenated sections of Augusta. The program will also create better walking areas, with repaved sidewalks and more sitting areas in shady sections, as well as pedestrian walkways and crossing areas. Bike lanes will also be implemented and made safer.

The hub of the transport reform would be a new transit center to replace an old bus transfer station. At the same time, a nearby building will be rebuilt to become a pedestrian shopping and commercial village.

They hope to improve the number of parks and playgrounds, as well as renew previously existing ones. The program looks to acquire more land for public parks in strategic neighborhood locations, as well as improve storm water management and other green projects. The public areas would be enriched by public art and mixed-use centers for everyone, creating a welcoming, friendly neighborhood feeling.

Most impressively, this project has been meticulously planned for and articulated, with required costs enumerated and accounted for. Specific proposals have also been evaluated, together with potential funding sources – both public and private. The Augusta Sustainable Development Implementation Program members appear to have spared no effort to make this program successful, identifying all possible ways of fulfilling their plans for urban development as well as managing vacant housing. All in all, this project stands to be one of Augusta’s best chances for revitalization – restoring its former glory as well as propelling it towards the future.

October 2, 2013

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Five In-Demand Jobs that do not Require a College Degree

In today’s society, you might think that a college degree is required in order to land a great job. But college just isn’t in the cards for some of us. We don’t have the time, the money, or the mindset. If you are one of these people, don’t lose hope! There are plenty of great jobs out there that do not require a college degree.

The majority of all working-class individuals in the United States (as of 2013) do not hold a college degree. Does this surprise you? These people aren’t just delivering pizza or driving garbage trucks. In fact, 30% of these people earn more money than college grads. With diligence and dedication, it is very possible to have a rewarding career without spending all that money on tuition. Based on projected job growth and salary, here are the top five jobs that do not require a college degree:

#5 – Dry Wall Taper

wall taperIf you like to be on your feet and use your hands, this might be a good job for you. A dry wall taper prepares walls for paint after they have been installed. This vocation doesn’t require a high school diploma, an apprenticeship, or a technical degree. You can simply learn the trade from experienced workers. The construction industry is expected to grow as the economy improves. The average salary for a dry wall taper is $45,490. Keep in mind that you will be working in a construction environment and will have to deal with the elements, dangerous materials, and loud noises.

 #4 – Electrician

An electrician is someone humanity will always need, especially considering how technology is advancing. The average salary for these guys is $48,250. Electricians work in all types of buildings from private apartments to offices to stadiums. The more gadgets we develop, the more we need people who know how to fix them. Although you won’t need a college degree to be an electrician, you will need to go through an apprenticeship – but you get paid while you learn! Because you are working with electricity, there is always the rare danger of electrocution.

#3 – Commercial Pilot

If you’re not afraid of heights and have good eyesight, consider becoming a pilot. Although airlines have suffered recently, they are projected to add 6,900 jobs by 2020. The average salary for a commercial pilot is $67,500 (that’s $26,000 more than the average full-time employee). The only requirement for this profession is a commercial pilot’s license and some time at a local flight school. Although many airlines prefer pilots with two- or four-year degrees, it is very possible to become a respected commercial pilot with experience and a pilot’s license. The downside is that you will be away from home a lot as you bounce from city to city.

#2 – Brickmason/Blockmason

brick-masonThe average brickmason earns $46,930 each year. By 2020, the workforce is projected to grow by over 36,000 individuals. With our rapidly increasing population, there is always a need for new hospitals, schools, and homes. Brickmasons are craftsmen who work for construction contractors. Growing urban areas are where they see the most business. Brickmasons are expected to complete a paid apprenticeship lasting three or four years. They will also pick up skills on the job from more experienced workers. Just like any construction job, masons are exposed to the weather along with dangerous materials and loud noises. Make sure to wear your helmet!

#1 – Pile-Driver Operator

Are you a high school grad good with machines? Pile-driver operators make 19% more money than the US average. With on-the-job training, you can become a pile-driver operator in no time. The average salary for this profession is $47,860. In this job, you might work on oil rigs, cranes, barges, or skids. Using large machines, you will drive construction supports deep into the ground. If you’re interested in this job, look towards Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Demand for pile-driver operators is expected to grow nearly three times the rate of all other US jobs in upcoming years. This job may be a little more dangerous than the average job, but if you like to use big machines and work outside, it might just be the perfect job for you.

September 25, 2013

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Exploring the Islands Surrounding Singapore

Singapore is a metropolitan city and a melting pot of people, languages and culture. There is no lack of activity or novelty in this urban island, but city life can sometimes take its toll on the mind and body. Whether you are a tourist or a local, the islands surrounding Singapore offer both a welcome refuge from the concrete jungle and a peek into Singapore’s pre-urban past. Let’s check out some of these destinations within a two-hour boat ride from Singapore.

Pulau Ubin

pulau ubinPulau Ubin is one of the few remaining undeveloped areas within Singapore. Located 15 minutes away from Changi pier, Ubin is an enchanting destination that has an element of timelessness and is a must-see for any would be visitor. It stands in sharp contrast to the skyscraper filled mainland, with one of its major attractions being the 19th century wooden houses that are home to cheery, easy-going villagers.

Some of its rural charm includes unfettered forests, age old dust paths and a laid back pace of life that makes one feel liberated from the modern pressures of life. Visitors have the option of cycling off to a wetland reserve – Chek Jawa – or simply whiling away at the local eatery enjoying the tranquility of the rural landscape.

You can reach the island by catching a bumboat from the Changi ferry terminal.

St John’s Island

st john

St John’s Island is another popular destination within Singapore. It offers an idyllic retreat for visitors who can choose among picnicking at its remarkable beach, getting a tan or even just strolling around the island to experience nature at her best.

St John’s Island also has an exquisite coral reef home to a school of dolphins that on a good day can be seen playing in the water. For individuals who seek tranquility, taking part in a nature walk conducted by the local marine institute would be a good idea.

The island can be accessed via the daily ferries leaving from Marina South Pier.

Batam

batam resortAlthough Batam (part of Indonesia) is known for its luxurious resorts and sprawling golf courses, it is not the reserve of well-heeled travelers. There are actually numerous locations on this island that offers budget-friendly refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. Located 20 kilometers from Singapore’s south coast, Batam is also a gateway to Indonesia and its famous Riau Archipelago.

Visitors have the option of hiring a vehicle and setting out on an enchanting drive through the island. Some of the most notable landmarks that can be viewed during these drives include the Barelang bridge – a signature landmark in Batam and camp Sinam: now a ghost town that once hosted thousands of refugees during the Indochina war.

For those more interested in having a good time, the Melur beach renowned for its pristine conditions is the destination of choice. You can then spend the rest of the day at the Sekupang district best known for its luxurious spa and massage treatments.

The island can be accessed via BatamFast Ferry which runs a frequent 45 minute ferry service departing from Singapore’s Harbourfront Terminal.

Bintan (Tanjung Pinang)

bintan--indonesia

This Indonesian island lies right next to Batam and can be best described as sleepy village with one of the finest beaches in Asia.

When visiting this island, it would be a good idea to first power-up with traditional buffet – Nasi Campur – before heading out to the coastline.

The view from the coastline is quite remarkable making a stroll on the peaceful stretches of sand one of the major highlights when visiting. The day can then be completed by a visit to the Penyangat island ruins (ancient capital of the Malay Kingdom) and a seafood meal at the Melayu square.

The island can be accessed via a 90 minute ferry ride from the Tanah Merah terminal.

September 8, 2013

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Health Insurance Tips for the Self-Employed

self-employedBeing self-employed has lots of perks. You get to choose your own hours, hire whomever you want, and be your own boss. The downside is that your job doesn’t provide health insurance.  And if you own a small business, you’re probably too busy to even think about health insurance!

Most self-employed individuals just don’t have health insurance. The last thing you want is for a medical emergency to impede your flourishing new business. You need to have a backup plan in case of an emergency that involves you, your family, or injuries that may put your business at risk.

If you are currently uninsured and looking for health insurance, make sure to shop around first and consider all your options. Ask other business owners for advice. You can use the Internet to compare rates and find trusted licensed agents (like eHealthInsurance.com).

Assistance for workers who are retrenched or in career transition

If your self-employment stemmed from being laid off, there is another option available to you. COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) is a federal program that allows individuals to temporarily extend the insurance they had through previous employment (at their own cost). The federal government offers a 65% subsidy for COBRA premiums, making this a great option for many. COBRA is most attractive to those with pre-existing medical conditions that make it hard for them to qualify for coverage in other programs.

Look out for rate guarantees and tax deductions

When you decide to buy private health insurance, remember that the insurance company may increase your monthly premiums once in awhile. To protect yourself from this trick, look for a “rate guarantee.” Licensed health insurance agents can give you advice on which company to use and help you understand all the little details. Some companies offer to lock in your rate for a certain period of time if you pay a “small fee” each month. Do the math before you sign to ensure that you are actually saving money.

Some states allow qualified self-employed individuals to deduct health insurance premiums on their federal tax returns. There are rules to follow – make sure to ask a tax professional if you have any questions. Remember that you can’t deduct any money during any period of time in which you were eligible to participate in a health insurance plan sponsored by another employer.  A tax professional can also teach you about all the different types of self-employment statuses in your state and the associated tax implications.

Health Savings Account

A Health Savings Account (HSA) is a good idea for many self-employed individuals. This account is set up with an HSA-eligible health insurance program. Compared to other plans, HSAs usually have high deductibles and low monthly premiums. With an HSA, you can deposit some of your pre-tax income into a savings account so that it can earn tax-free interest. You can use then that money to pay for medical expenses like copayments and deductibles. The money you don’t use builds up tax-free year by year.

No matter what type of health insurance you end up purchasing, make sure to speak with a health insurance agent and a tax professional so that you save as much money as possible. With a good health insurance program and peace of mind, you will have more time to focus on what’s really important: your business.

September 18, 2013

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Trends in Green Home Design

When you opt for an eco-design home, you will not only be living up to your environmental ideals but saving yourself money too. Green homes incorporate renewable resources and concepts which reduce the amount of water and electricity you consume. With their environmentally friendly design, you are assured of reducing your family’s carbon footprint and ultimately, you will have more money in your wallet and in the bank.

Select eco-friendly door and window designs

Recycling

Maybe there is an argument for a front door fitted with a glass window as it helps light up the entryway. However, this design also allows warmth from the interior to escape. Contrast this with a door made of environmentally friendly and recyclable wood (without a window) which keeps your house energy efficient at all times.

Homes without eco-friendly window designs lose, on average, about 30% of air conditioning and heating energy a month. As different climatic zones have different energy efficiency requirements, look for window designs with an Energy Star rating for your region.

 

Opt for eco-friendly siding

For the best results, go for stucco, wood or aluminum siding. Avoid siding made of PVC as these are infused with toxins not to mention they are neither biodegradable nor reusable.

Go for a natural gas fireplace

Traditional wooden fireplaces may satisfy your nostalgia but burning wood releases harmful pollutants and also encourage deforestation. A natural gas fireplace is a more eco-friendly choice.

Choose green roofing materials

Again, opt for roofing materials with a fitting Energy-Star rating, preferably made of recycled resources. Aluminum metal roofs are highly recommended as they offer excellent heat resistance and can be reused again and again.

Opt for renewable energy to run your HVAC system

Solar panels are a sensible choice for anyone looking to cut their energy bills. While the cost of installing a solar panel system at home may be high, the system begins paying for itself immediately with lower (sometimes even eliminating) energy bills. Moreover, homes with solar installations have a higher resale value.

Natural gas is also comparatively energy efficient when it comes to running heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment. Just be certain that the equipment you go for has the relevant Energy Star rating.

Go for bamboo flooring

Bamboo is by far the most eco-friendly and resilient flooring material you can find. Being a type of grass, bamboo is quick to grow and therefore is sustainable and renewable. Best of all, the material is as sturdy and durable as oak and other hardwood flooring materials.

Use a tank-less water heater or solar thermal heater

Tank-less water heating systems are more energy efficient than traditional heaters fitted with tanks. Solar thermal water heaters, while a trifle more costly, are even more eco-friendly. You will reduce your energy bill by at least half and your house will never run out of hot water.

Use natural paints for your walls

Paints made from natural materials such as plant extracts, oils and minerals are not only safer but also eco-friendly. Such paints are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a well known pollutant.

Ensure your plumbing is green

Clay pipes are highly recommended for underground pipes in place of PVC, a form of plastic infused with harmful toxins. For pipes above the ground, alternatives such as galvanized steel, zinc and aluminum are highly recommended eco-friendly options.

Go for furniture made from recyclable and renewable materials

It is prudent to take time in choosing furniture that complements the look and appearance of your entire home. When it comes to eco-friendly furniture materials, you will be spoilt for choice from alternatives such as bamboo, rattan, teak and recycled wood.

September 3, 2013

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Quick & Easy Tips for the First-Time CouchSurfer

With the holidays coming chances are good you will be doing a good bit of travel. Travel means expensive hotels and food cost. At least it did before CouchSurfing was established in 1999. It is a simple concept: you put up at a stranger’s place while traveling (instead of staying at a hostel or hotel). There is even a social network of the same name devoted to other “CouchSurfers”, like you. There are over two million users spread across 237 countries using this social networking site that focuses on this type of hospitality exchange.

This is how it works. Before you travel, rather than booking a hotel you visit this social networking website. If you find an available host at your destination, they can offer their place for you to stay during your trip there. In return, if they are ever traveling your direction, you open up your couch to them.

couchsurfing

As simple as it sounds, for a newbie there can still be confusion as to standard practices and things to watch out for. If you are considering CouchSurfing for the first time, here are a few helpful tips to help you get started and make a good impression on your host.

Plan ahead & offer advanced notice

Chances are good that you plan your vacation weeks in advance. You should give your potential host as much notice as possible too. Keep in mind that hosts also have a life of their own. If you wait until the last minute to tell them that you are on your way, they may have to change their plans to accommodate you. The best thing to do is to make them well aware of your plans before you travel so that they are able to plan accordingly. It will save them the inconvenience of changing their plans and it will save you from being the one responsible.

Show appreciation

CouchSurfer hosts are not allowed to charge a fee for the use of their couch. That does not mean that you cannot show your appreciation. They are after all saving you the expense of a hotel accommodation. Each person on the website fills out a profile that includes their personal likes or dislikes. Read up on the person you plan to visit and give them a gift that coincides with the things they enjoy. For instance, if you read that a person enjoys a certain type of wine, consider bringing a bottle along; or if they enjoy a certain type food and you know how to prepare it, offer to whip up a meal while you are there. Small gestures like this go a long way in showing that you appreciate their hospitality.

Reimburse them

If you consume food belonging to your hosts or use up a whole box of Kleenex, replace them or give them a little reimbursement for using their items. At least offer to do so: even though most hosts will decline the offer it is polite to do so and helps them feel better about having you back the next time you travel their way.

Clear up any mess you make

As far as possible, you should ensure that you restore the conditions of your host’s place before you leave. Make up your bed, vacuum where you put your shoes, take out your trash etc. You should treat their home as though it is your own or at least do the same as you would for your relatives and friends if they were to invite you to their home for a night or two.

Make a sincere offer to host them

It does not matter if you live in the middle of nowhere. Offer your place to your hosts if they are ever in your area. They may never take you up on your kindness but at least you have let them know that you appreciate their efforts and wish to return the favor.

Select an experienced host

If you are new to it, you will probably have an easier time if you choose someone who has been hosted by and also hosted others in return several times. The reason is simple: they have been there and done that. They will understand the sort of concerns or doubts you may have and you will feel less awkward raising them. For instance, they will tell you where to leave the key when you head off for your vacation. This will help ensure that you have a great first experience with CouchSurfing.