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NorCal home sales

(AP) -- Northern California has posted its strongest housing market in six years, with sales and prices increasing. But researchers say the market's still far from normal.

The San Diego-based firm DataQuick reported Thursday that about 5,500 homes were sold in the San Francisco Bay area last month, up more than 3 percent from January 2012.

The median price for a home in the nine-county region was $415,000. That was up more than 27 percent from the price a year earlier.

There were fewer sales of foreclosed homes and short sales, where the price was less than what was owed on the home.

Sales also shifted away from low-cost homes to mid-market and move-up homes.

However, DataQuick President John Walsh said the mortgage market is still dysfunctional and it's only slowly moving toward normalcy.

Grand reopening

(AP) -- The Bay Area Toll Authority has agreed to spend $5.6 million to host a public celebration of the Labor Day opening of the Bay Bridge's new eastern span.

The contract approved Wednesday will pay for transportation, sanitation, security and other costs for the party, when about 125,000 people are expected to walk from Oakland to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge.

The contract with Hartmann Studios of Richmond must be approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission later this month.

A private group called the Bay Bridge Alliance is working to raise private funds that could reduce the amount the agency will have to pay for the celebration.

The new eastern span will connect Oakland to Treasure Island and replace a bridge that was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Nevada's foreclosures

(AP) -- Nevada's foreclosure rate remains second in the nation even though activity dropped significantly year-over-year.

RealtyTrac reported Thursday that Nevada's January foreclosure rate is down 43 percent year-over-year, but down less than 1 percent compared with December.

One in every 344 properties in Nevada saw some sort of foreclosure filing last month. That rate was behind only Florida.

Nevada's numbers are similar to the national foreclosure trend for the month of January.

RealtyTrac reported foreclosure filings nationwide were down 7 percent from December, and down 28 percent year-over-year.

The report also noted Las Vegas has the sixth-highest foreclosure rate among U.S. metropolitan areas with 200,000 people or more.

Solar reverse osmosis

(Bloomberg) -- Solon Corp., a solar power plant provider, completed construction of a photovoltaic system at a reverse osmosis water treatment facility in the southern Arizona town of Gila Bend. No costs were disclosed.

Solon said in a statement that the system is expected to offset the energy usage of the water treatment plant by 86 percent, saving the town money by reducing utility bills.

The project was financed through an Arizona state water infrastructure finance authority grant for drinking water improvements, Solon said.

Revitalizing the Sahara

(AP) -- The owners of the shuttered Sahara casino on an aging stretch of the Las Vegas Strip say they're breaking ground on a redevelopment project that will revitalize the resort.

Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment announced Wednesday that it's beginning construction after securing the $400 million needed for the project.

The development company said it will reopen the iconic resort that once hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley by fall of 2014. It will be renamed the SLS Las Vegas.

Owners say the resort will bring celebrity chefs, nightlife and 1,600 guestrooms and suites to the Strip's older and less glitzy north end, which includes the famed Stratosphere.

Managers of the 59-year-old Sahara closed the casino in May 2011 after saying it wasn't economically viable.


(AP) -- Some of the money that Alabama receives from BP over the Gulf oil spill could end up helping coastal residents make their homes more resistant to wind damage from hurricanes.

That is one of the recommendations from a commission that Gov. Robert Bentley appointed to study the availability and rising cost of homeowners insurance.

The Affordable Homeowners Insurance Committee proposed setting aside $100 million.

Bentley said he hasn't decided on an amount, but he wants to use BP (NYSE: BP) money to award grants to residents of Alabama's two coastal counties, who can't afford to make their homes safer.

Commission Chairman Tim Russell, said making a typical 2,000-square-foot home more resistant to high winds costs $5,000 to $7,000.

He said it includes installing tougher roofing, tying rafters to ceiling joists, and improvements to doors and window.

He said people who make the improvements can already get discounts of up to 35 percent on the part of their homeowners insurance that covers wind damage.

Defrauding alleged

(AP) -- State and local officials in Iowa promised an Egyptian company $200 million in tax breaks to build a fertilizer plant without knowledge of a lawsuit alleging one of the company's subsidiaries defrauded U.S. taxpayers out of millions of dollars.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority and Lee County approved the incentives for a subsidiary of Cairo-based Orascom Construction Industries, which plans to invest $1.4 billion to build the plant in southeast Iowa.

Authority Director Debi Durham said during vetting, the agency did not uncover the lawsuit filed by the federal government against Contrack International.

The lawsuit alleges Contrack was part of a venture that improperly won $332 million in U.S.-financed construction contracts in Egypt.

Durham said she's “not sure how anyone would have found that” and doesn't consider the case significant.

Wounded Knee sale

(AP) -- One of the country's poorest Native American tribes wants to buy a historically significant piece of land where 300 of their ancestors were killed, but tribal leaders say the nearly $4 million price tag for a property appraised at less than $7,000 is just too much.

James Czywczynski is trying to sell a 40-acre fraction of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The land sits adjacent to a gravesite where about 150 of the 300 Lakota men, women and children killed by the 7th Cavalry in 1890 are buried.

Czywczynski, whose family has owned the property since 1968, recently gave the tribe an ultimatum: purchase the land for $3.9 million or he will open up bidding to non-Native Americans.

He said he has been trying to sell the land to the tribe for years.

The ultimatum comes right before the tribe is poised to receive about $20 million from the Cobell lawsuit-- a $3.4 billion settlement stemming from a class-action lawsuit filed over American Indian land royalties mismanaged by the government for more than a century.

Falsified records alleged

(AP) -- Two top officials at a northern New Jersey municipal water authority falsified records and shut down contaminated wells in advance of safety tests to hide elevated levels of tetrachloroethene, known as PERC, the state attorney general's office charged in an indictment released Wednesday.

The indictment was handed up Tuesday against 58-year-old Harry Mansmann, the executive director of the East Orange Water Commission, and assistant executive director and engineer William Mowell, 51.

They are charged with conspiracy, records tampering, unlawfully releasing toxic pollutants and multiple counts of official misconduct and violating state environmental laws.

The water authority serves about 90,000 customers in East Orange and South Orange, which are adjacent to Newark.

As part of the alleged conspiracy, they are charged with directing that water that had PERC levels as high as 25 times the allowable level to be discharged onto the banks of the Passaic River in Florham Park over the span of four weeks in the spring of 2011.

Jefferson Co. deal

(Bloomberg) -- Jefferson County, Ala., will settle a bankruptcy claim held by school system bondholder Depfa Bank Plc, that will save the county about $1 million a year, a county commissioner said.

The county and the bank will sign the agreement to reduce the interest rate on about $162 million, County Commissioner Jimmie Stephens, who heads the commission's finance committee, said Wednesday. Commissioners approved the arrangement Thursday.

The settlement is one of three signed with creditors so far in the case, Stephens said.

It won't affect the continuing battle between the county and sewer warrant holders owed more than $3 billion.

Jefferson County filed the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in 2011 after a deal with sewer warrant holders fell apart.

The case is In re Jefferson County, 11-05736, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Alabama (Birmingham).

Canadian bear market

(Bloomberg) -- Bond investors are coming around to the view of David Madani, one of Canada's most bearish economists, that the deterioration in the nation’s housing market is crimping growth and may prompt an interest rate cut.

Madani, of Capital Economics Ltd. in Toronto, is the only person surveyed by Bloomberg News over the past two years who consistently predicted the Bank of Canada would not raise borrowing costs.

He forecasts home prices will drop by about 25 percent over the next couple of years.

Investors and policy makers are aligning themselves with Madani.

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said Jan. 23 higher interest rates are “less imminent,” and reduced his 2013 growth forecast.

Since then, Canadian government bonds due in one to three years have returned 0.2 percent, the fifth-best performance among the 26 countries tracked by Bloomberg's EFFAS Bond Index.

“We don't believe in the soft landing,” Madani said Wednesday.

UK commercial

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. commercial real estate values fell for the 15th consecutive month in January led by a decline in retail, Investment Property Databank Ltd. (IPD) said.

The average value of stores, offices and warehouses declined 0.2 percent from December, London-based IPD said Thursday.

Total return, which combines changes in real estate values and rental income, was 0.4 percent in January.

The value of office buildings in the City of London financial district fell for the first time since July.

Capital growth slowed in the London's West End office and retail markets, IPD said. Retail values overall declined by 0.3 percent.
Peru plants

(Bloomberg) -- Peru is building reserve power plants and transmission lines in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year's blackouts, the head of the country’s electricity grid said.

Peru's power demand is slated to grow 8.8 percent this year and 10.8 percent in 2014 as new mines start in the central and southern Andes, Cesar Butron, head of the Peru Interconnected National System, said Thursday.

Peru has enough reserve generating capacity to offset a five-day maintenance shutdown in March of Electroperu's 880-megawatt Mantaro hydroelectric plant, Peru’s largest, Butron said.

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