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Decorative glass may be on the upswing in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At one time, West Virginia was a leader in the once-booming glass industry, having boasted nearly 460 manufacturing plants in 57 cities since the first plant opened in Wellsburg in the early 1800s.

But what was once thriving is now floundering. Last year, just 16 remained -- all survivors of heavy foreign competition, rising natural gas prices and shrinking demand.

Two of the companies among them, Blenko Glass in Milton and Fenton Art Glass in Williamstown, have struggled over a rocky road recently but slipped into promising niches, indicating that there is still hope for decorative glassware.

"We have seen a resurgence of appreciation of American-made products," Blenko Glass Vice President Katie Tripp said, adding that while decorative glass sales in West Virginia have not picked up noticeably, the nationwide industry is on the rise. "For us, we've seen significant support in a number of areas for that. A lot of large companies that used to purchase from us in the '90s came back because their customers are demanding American-made products."

In 2011, Blenko Glass filed for bankruptcy and members of the community feared that a production halt might be imminent. They've since rebounded, Tripp said, partly because their old customers felt a need to support companies that provide local jobs and didn't notice a drastic difference in price or quality in domestic glass compared to foreign brands.

"It's been tough. I'm not going to say it hasn't been tough, but I think the current trend is a positive trend."

But while Blenko managed to hang on to its decorative production, Fenton Art Glass was forced to shut down its furnaces.

"It's something that we were very proud of," George Fenton said of the company's decorative glass factory. "We brought a lot of pleasure around the country, we certainly identified with the community and the people here and the family and all of that."

The company instead moved to a new model: jewelry and decorative beads. So far, the foray is producing results, Fenton said.

"Our sales continue to increase," he said. "We're in a new category for us, not in a new category for the marketplace."

"Our progress is based on getting in front of new customers. We're pleased with the progress we're making, I think," he said.

Fenton said that along with foreign competition, the decorative glass industry suffered when major retailers started buying glassware, putting a strain on the mom-and-pop business that he usually sold to.

In other words, he said, people lost interest in collectibles manufactured from American glass companies. Natural gas prices rose too, which cut into the razor-thin profit margins.

Tripp said that Blenko receives most of its business from mom-and-pop stores. Considerations for the style of glass people want to buy are also challenges that face the industry, she said.

"Some things are bound to go out," she said.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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