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Obama Brings 'Shovel-Ready' Talk Into Mainstream

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The Web site says it is maintained by the Upstate New York economic development arm of National Grid, an electric utility. Art Hamlin, the company's Upstate New York economic development director, is on the horn.

So, what about Obama and all this shovel-ready business?

"I laughed when I heard it on the radio this morning," Hamlin says. "It's very satisfying."

Hamlin says his company started throwing around the term back in the late 1990s. At the time, they were looking for ways to stimulate development of "brownfields," the abandoned and frequently contaminated industrial sites that were being cleaned up and made available for development.

Executives at the company, then called Niagara-Mohawk Power, figured entrepreneurs would be more likely to develop the brownfields if they knew in advance that the sites already had electrical service and gas and sewer lines, as well as preliminary environmental permits. But they needed a catchy way of saying that.

They came up with shovel-ready.

"It had a nice ring to it," Hamlin says.

Such a nice ring, in fact, that they decided to stake a claim. In 1998, the company bought the Internet domain name and even trademarked it.

Now, determining the exact origin of a word or phrase is an inexact science, and there's always a possibility that someone might have been using shovel-ready before Hamlin and his colleagues. But they have a pretty strong claim to the phrase's provenance.

Governors and economic development agencies use the phrase all the time now. It has even been modified -- a witness testifying at a House of Representatives hearing spoke of "shovel-readiness" in October. Since Obama's "Meet the Press" appearance, a string of governors, including Maryland's Martin O'Malley, have issued statements crowing about their shovel-ready projects.

Shovel-ready, in other words, has arrived.

Hamlin and his pals have watched all this with pride, saying "we feel it has its origins in Upstate New York."

But being a possible linguistic trend-setter hasn't made Hamlin and his colleagues get fancy.

Their phrase, he says, is nothing more than "a symbol of moving dirt."

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