Adam Ozimek is an economist, paid for the business and labor data that he tortures until it confesses, and the insights he squeezes from it, at Moody’s Economy.com, the West Chester research and forecasting shop.
Celebrity money-watchers like Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the trader turned author of risk-explaining best sellers like Black Swan — who recently spent an hour warning trustees of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System not to buy stuff they don’t understand — have made careers of bashing economists (and journalists) as detached prognosticators with no “skin in the game" or real-life understanding of what business does as an engine of society.
Of course, Ozimek and his economist colleagues cheered last week’s reports that Amazon.com, the most valuable U.S. company, has hired 150 Ph.D. economists to track purchasing, pricing, and property trends — a ringing endorsement of the profession, which he suggested should be copied by Comcast and other big Philadelphia companies.
But why stop with big business? Ozimek is one economist who has decided not just to watch money flow, but to make it happen. He and four partners last week opened Decades, a 45-foot-long bar, six-lane bowling alley (with a second bar), 110-seat restaurant (“our chef’s from Baltimore — crab cakes, wings”), and 25-station classic pinball, Skee Ball, and basketball machine arcade in a 15,000-square-foot former National Guard armory and theater at 438 N. Queen St. in Lancaster City.
Their improvements cost more than the leased property’s appraisal value, which is just over a half-million dollars, according to city records.
“Economists do start businesses. Our business is a start-up. And Adam is an enterprising, entrepreneurial fellow," said one of his bosses, Mark Zandi, Economy.com’s most familiar face from cable TV and congressional hearings.
“Empirically, Adam is very creative,” Zandi added. Zandi says he’s loyally heading to Decades, where he plans to bowl a little: “I can score, like, 120.”
“We’ve been talking about doing this since we started Lancaster Craft Beerfest five year ago,” Ozimek told me on a visit to the job site a few weeks before opening. Some features of business ownership stumped him — why should Pennsylvania liquor licenses cost so much, eating “10 to 15 percent” of opening expenses? But “we kept pushing, and talking to people here in Lancaster, 'til the pieces fell in place.”
“We” is Ozimek and his buddies since their public-school days in Hempfield Area (corrected) schools, Chris Trendler and Jonathan Yeager. The three pitched their dream to Ephrata father-daughter builders Mike and Bri Callahan of Benchmark Construction late in 2017, and persuaded them to join as builder-partners.
“He’s definitely got the economist way about him. He’s a level, flat guy, compared to those other two" ― lifelong food-and-beverage boss Trendler, artist and creative-marketing specialist Yeager — Mike Callahan said last week, the day after city officials attended a grand opening. “It fascinates me, their skill sets.”
“Adam’s been a big influence on my own career as a graphic designer and artist and illustrator,” Yeager told me. “I don’t think of him just as an economist, but as a creator and influencer. He’s always pushing me to get more business, get my name out there. Adam’s always thinking, and thinking numbers: ‘How we can pull this off?’"
Callahan gives his partners’ grade-school friendships better-than-even chances to survive the strains of business ownership, given their track record making the beer festival profitable.
The builder said he’s fascinated by Ozimek’s analysis of the Lancaster-area economy. “He has all these numbers about why this thing is going to work,” Callahan said.
Lancaster County, with around 550,000 people, has been the fastest-growing of the 10 largest U.S. census-designated metro areas in Pennsylvania since 2010, according to census data. The county’s per-capita income of nearly $26,000 a year was below the state average, but its family and household incomes were above the average, a sign Lancaster County families are larger, which economists often associate with long-term growth. Along with Philadelphia, it is one of the few Pennsylvania counties where birth rates are comparable to those in the faster-growing Washington and New York areas.
It isn’t exactly a Florida-resort- or Western-software-center-scale boomtown, but the metro Lancaster area beats Philadelphia, its suburban counties, and every other metro area in Pennsylvania on a measure Ozimek and Moody’s colleague Brendan Meighan developed last fall: the Broad-Based Start-up Rate (BBSR), which considers not only the number of start-ups but the diversity across industries.
Lancaster is among Pennsylvania’s leading centers for both new manufacturing and new information-technology businesses, for example — signs of a growing educated, economically active population that’s a reasonable market for new restaurant-bars, indoor-sports joints, and entertainment venues.
Ozimek’s data citing Lancaster as a node of opportunity sounds consistent with the urban-professional investment and consumption that Callahan says has kept area builders like him busy in recent years, alongside a steady stream of senior-citizen community-building work.
The numbers guy and his friends are betting their own labor and capital that this mini-boom will keep rolling.