HUNTINGTON — AK Steel planned to close, but was purchased in December. Also in 2019, the vaping industry came under fire and the sale of two of Huntington’s tallest buildings was completed. These are just three of The Herald-Dispatch’s list of the top 10 local business stories for 2019.

1. AK Steel’s Ashland facility planned to close by year’s end, but purchased by Cleveland-CliffsIn November, AK Steel’s plan to close its largely idled Ashland Works by the end of the year was closer to reality after the final operating portion of the plant produced its final coil.

Then in December, Cleveland-Cliffs announced it would buy the AK Steel in a stock deal valued at about $1.1 billion.

The companies say the acquisition will create a vertically integrated company that pairs Cleveland-Cliffs’ iron ore pellet production with AK Steel’s rolled and stainless steel operations. Cleveland-Cliffs is the largest producer of iron ore pellets in North America.

AK Steel will become a subsidiary of Cliffs and keep its branding and corporate identity. Cliffs will remain listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Its headquarters will stay in Cleveland while maintaining a significant presence at AK Steel’s current offices in West Chester, Ohio, along with its research and innovation center in Middletown, Ohio.

The deal is expected to close in the first half of next year.

2. W.Va. coal magnate/Marshall benefactor

Chris Cline killed in helicopter crash

Chris Cline, a Beckley native and Marshall University alumnus and benefactor, died in a helicopter crash in July in the Bahamas. Seven people were reported to be aboard.

Cline was a major benefactor to Marshall’s VISION campaign in 2011 when he made a $5 million donation to establish an endowment to support new faculty and scientists for Marshall’s Sports Medicine Institute. A building next to the Marshall football stadium was officially named the Chris Cline Athletic Complex on Sept. 6, 2014.

The flight had left the Bahamas and was en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

3. Coal companies file bankruptcy as projected trends in production continued to decline

In July, Milton-based Revelation Energy, the nation’s sixth-largest coal producer, filed for bankruptcy protection, citing at least $500 million owed in liabilities and the inability to make payroll for its more than 1,100 employees.

The company and its affiliate Blackjewel LLC was “entering Chapter 11 with insufficient cash to operate their businesses” and “needs additional liquidity, in addition to the cash flow from operations, to fund and operate their business,” according to documents filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

The companies, owned by philanthropist and executive Jeff Hoops, operate surface mining operations, deep mine operations and loadout facilities in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia and northeastern Wyoming.

In October, Ohio-based Murray Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Murray Energy’s move was necessary to access liquidity and best position it for long-term success, said former CEO Robert Murray.

The company’s operations span Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia, as well as Colombia, South America.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration continued to report throughout the year lower coal production compared with 2018. The EIA forecast continuing declines through 2040.

4. Two of Huntington tallest building sold in 2019

Cornerstone Community Development Corporation purchased the Prichard Building, more recently known as Hope Tower, in the 600 block of 9th Street in Huntington near the end of the year.

An official with Cornerstone said the company is not ready yet to give full details about plans for the building. On the company’s website, it says the building is 13 floors tall with 120,000 square feet of premium retail space and housing.

The historic building at the southwest corner of 6th Avenue and 9th Street originated as the 300-room Prichard Hotel. It was built by real estate developer Fred C. Prichard and managed by veteran hotel man A.E. Kelley, opening in 1925. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of Huntington’s tallest buildings.

In August, the Coal Exchange Building at the intersection of 4th Avenue and 11th Street sold for $500,000 during a public auction in the lobby on the ground floor of the historic building.

The winning bidder was Whirlwind Properties LLC, a Huntington real estate investment firm. However, after the auction was over, the company yielded the sale to Francis McGuire with McGuire Realty, who was representing the buyer, Jay Barta.

Barta is also the owner of the DoubleTree by Hilton Huntington.

McGuire said Barta plans to renovate the ground-level floors of the two buildings into commercial space and make residential living spaces on the upper floors.

5. Vaping industry comes under fire

Vaping came under increased scrutiny in 2019 following the outbreak of vaping-related deaths caused by mysterious lung illnesses. As the number of vaping-related illnesses across the country continued to climb, local, state and federal leaders began looking at steps that could be taken to address the issue.

In November, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department moved to ban vaping in public places. In Ohio, state leaders continued researching whether the governor has the authority to ban liquid flavors used in e-cigarettes as a way to battle against children vaping.

Local vape shop owners said proposed bans would be devastating to vape businesses across the country.

6. Frontier often under fire for its services

In 2019, Frontier Communications was routinely under fire for its internet service and its landline phone service, with dozens of formal complaints being lodged against the company.

The company was being sued by at least 150 disgruntled internet customers, it was ordered to conduct an audit of its operations by the West Virginia Public Service Commission and the company has been on the radar of both state and federal officials over alleged poor service. Many actions date back several years.

In November, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed documents to enhance West Virginia’s chance of recouping nearly $5 million in ongoing fraud litigation involving Frontier Communications. The case involves alleged fraud in the spending of federal stimulus funds awarded to West Virginia in 2010 to expand broadband internet. Federal regulators already required the state to repay more than $4.9 million associated with the case.

7. RCBI AERO key player in growing aviation, aerospace sector

A key player in West Virginia’s growing aviation and aerospace sector is RCBI AERO, the Robert C. Byrd Institute’s aerospace proof-of-concept and training facility.

The goal is to expand the aerospace footprint in Cabell and Wayne counties by connecting local manufacturers to the supply chain, attracting new companies to the region, and establishing an FAA-certified aircraft maintenance and repair facility that will benefit southern West Virginia.

The new center has a three-fold mission that includes working to develop a first-class aerospace prototype center; providing assistance to regional companies — especially those affected by the downturn in the coal industry — by helping them to transition to suppliers for the aerospace industry; and working to bring large aerospace primes to the region to discuss new technologies in aerospace markets and talk about potential partnerships, which would create jobs and new opportunity.

8. Solar Holler founder aims to make panels more affordable

In 2019, Dan Conant, the founder of Solar Holler, said one of his main goals was to relentlessly pursue innovative approaches that bring solar within reach of the people and places who have always been left out.

“It no longer takes tens of thousands of dollars to install solar panels on a residential home or small business,” Conant said. “Everyone can own their own power system.”

Solar Holler completed the largest solar panel project in Huntington at Harmony House. The company installed 115 solar panels, which Harmony House officials called “a game-changing project,” for the nonprofit organization that helps the homeless because it estimated the organization would save as much as $130,000 in electricity costs over 25 years.

In March, Solar Holler worked on an even larger project in Huntington. The Huntington Area Habitat for Humanity had an estimated 185 solar panels that generate 53.65 kilowatts of power installed. More panels were installed on the Restore and administrative offices in the 200 block of 3rd Avenue.

Conant said the company had done hundreds of solar panel installations across the state on homes, businesses, churches, homeless shelters and other nonprofits.

“Across Appalachia, we’re working with dozens of families this year to help them mine the sun for clean energy to affordably power their homes and lives,” he said. “We are making it easier and affordable to all.”

9. Hwy 55 makes Braille menu for customer

Early in the year, the Hwy 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries restaurant in the 800 block of 3rd Avenue in downtown Huntington made a Braille menu for one of its blind customers.

Hwy 55 owner and operator Erin Downard said her staff noticed the blind woman’s husband reading her the restaurant’s menu.

“He would read every single line of every single page of our menu to her,” Downard said. “It was so sweet.”

With the help of the Cabell-Wayne Association of the Blind in Huntington a Braille version of the menu was created.

However, this heartwarming story did not end with the creation of a custom Braille menu for one customer in Huntington.

“I wanted to share this story with the entire Hwy 55 family,” Downard said.

After Downard shared Blankenship’s story on the company’s workplace network, Hwy 55 corporate officials implemented the Braille menu initiative throughout all Hwy 55 locations nationwide.

10. New law a boon to WV’s cottage food industry

In March, West Virginia became one of the most welcoming states in the nation for homemade or “cottage food” producers after Gov. Jim Justice signed into law a cottage food bill that allows the sale of these safe, shelf-stable goods out of homes, online or in retail shops. The new law went into effect June 5.

Before the law passed, West Virginians were limited to selling their cookies, jellies and breads at farmers markets and community events. With most farmers markets closed half of the year and events popping up sporadically, it was difficult for many producers to make a profit.

Now, bakers, herb driers, honey makers and other cottage food producers can sell goods from their homes, take online orders and even have a spot in a retail shop — all throughout the year.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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