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Some businesses endured hardships, while others prospered

Dec. 30, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

The past year has been challenging for many local businesses, but not without some growth and developments.

A handful of manufacturers in the area announced expansions, such as Rubberlite, Magnetech, Tri-State Coating and others, while health care and other institutions have opened or started work on new facilities.

But other businesses are facing roadblocks in their growth plans, while yet others are in standby mode.

"Surprisingly so, I think the recession still very much has a hold on this part of the country and our region here, fueled by the uncertainty of what's going to happen with coal production -- which affects a lot of businesses in this community -- coupled with uncertainty of what's going on at the national level with taxes and health care," said Mark Bugher, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce. "I talk with a lot of people who are just doing nothing because they don't know what's going to happen with health care and taxes.

"If they're not growing, they're going in the other direction, so the holding pattern doesn't really help us much."

The fact that businesses nationwide are mirroring the same trend makes it hard to attract business to the area, Bugher said, because there aren't many to reach out and grab.

Other businesses are grappling with basic changes in consumer habits, he said.

"Frankly, the Internet is still affecting the way a lot of people do business locally," Bugher said. "I've talked to a lot of small companies that have struggled partly because of people's buying patterns changing -- either buying more online, or (the fact that they're) not just buying to be buying.

"I saw in the paper this morning that retail is down, which doesn't surprise me because I talk to a lot of retailers who say it isn't terrible but it's certainly not what they're hoping for."

The Chamber does an annual survey asking its members specific questions about how business has been faring, the results of which should be out soon, he said. He thinks it will shed some light on 2012.

"I do think there's a lot of optimism here, which is good," Bugher said. "I think people want to grow and invest in this area. There's just so much uncertainty right now, it's hard for people to do that.

"Our work as a Chamber is to make the area more business friendly. We're constantly competing against everyone out there (nationally and beyond). Unless we find ways to do things better than everyone else, just getting better isn't going to help us."

Tri-State Airport

It was a challenging year at Huntington Tri-State Airport, with a fire that destroyed its kitchen in March and the loss of Delta service in May.

Airport officials continue to pursue airlines to replace the lost service, but it's a challenging market right now, said Jerry Brienza, executive director of the airport.

Fire broke out March 1 while a cook was frying chicken tenders, Brienza told the Airport Authority Board later that month. The fryer caught fire, and flames went up and caught the grease in the hood on fire, he said. Two firefighters at the airport responded quickly and kept the fire contained to the space directly above the cooking area of the kitchen. The airport was smoothly evacuated.

The Tudor's Biscuit World and Gino's chain stepped up to occupy the space and operate restaurants there. Tudor's is open in the mornings and early afternoons, and Gino's Pub will open for lunch and be open throughout the evenings.

Also this year, the airport completed a runway rehabilitation project and installed new, state-of-the-art security scanning equipment at the airport, the first of its kind in the region.

Intermodal facility

A contractor was chosen in August to build the long-planned intermodal facility along the Norfolk Southern railway in Prichard.

Mountaineer Contractors Inc., of Kingwood, W.Va., was awarded the contract to construct the new facility, planned for a 68-acre site off W.Va. 52 in Wayne County. Mountaineer's bid of $27,383,738.50 was the lowest of 10 submitted.

The facility, several years in the making, is planned to sit along Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor, a stretch of railway that carries double-stacked trains from the Virginia coast to Chicago. Through a public-private partnership, 28 tunnels were raised in Appalachia so trains could double stack containers, cutting shipping costs and travel time for companies moving freight from the East Coast to the Midwest. The intermodal facility in Prichard is expected to be a place where goods can be transferred between rail and roadways, or even river and airways with the proximity of the Big Sandy River and Huntington Tri-State Airport.

West Virginia and Wayne County officials hope the facility sparks nearby development in the form of warehouses and distribution centers.

It's expected to be completed in 2014.

Tough year for coal

Several local businesses that are involved with the coal industry worked on diversifying their services in 2012 as the coal industry struggled. With the cost of mining coal rising and with natural gas becoming so competitive, the coal industry spent 2012 in the midst of a battle. Local companies intertwined with the coal industry say they are doing what they can to fight the trend's ripple effect.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's annual report released in June, U.S. coal production is projected to decline for four years thereafter as a result of the low natural gas prices, rising coal prices, lack of growth in electricity demand and increasing generation from renewable energy sources.

New federal environmental regulations are projected to take a toll on coal as well, including requirements to control emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and air toxins such as mercury and acid gases. That will result in the retirement of some coal-fired generating capacity, including some here in West Virginia.

Downtown development

JoS. A. Bank moved into Pullman Square in 2012, filling the space two doors to the west of Cold Stone Creamery. In the meantime, Missio Dei Church has permanently occupied the space that once was the Funny Bone Comedy Club. It had been just renting it for Sunday services.

Other businesses new to the downtown include Lamb's Gate Market, a fair trade gift shop on 9th Street; La Bistro, which serves meals inspired from recipes of the French countryside, located in the spot where 3rd and 9th Deli-Market was before closing this year. New at Heritage Station are SIP Wine Bar and The Wild Ramp, a co-op market that sells locally grown and produced foods and products.

This year, Huntington has started Cash Mob events, in which community members are encouraged to patronize a targeted local business on a Saturday afternoon. Participants in a "Cash Mob" are urged to spend at least $5 or $10 at the store being "mobbed." The Cash Mob was introduced to Huntington by the grassroots community development organization Create Huntington. The group hosts Chat 'n Chew meetings from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Thursday in the lobby of the Frederick Building, and participants vote on a business to be mobbed each month.

Also helping small businessess in the area has been Unlimited Future. The business incubator and resource center in Huntington has been hosting monthly Entrepreneur Cafe events since April, giving more than a dozen local businesses a chance to share their business ideas with a group. Money has been provided to help businesses do things like buy bookkeeping software, establish a website and buy farming equipment or marketing materials.

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