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Leaders foresee period of growth in next decade

HUNTINGTON — As the dawn of a new decade arrives, two Cabell County mayors are sharing their vision for what they want to see within the next 10 years.

If the past decade can be defined by its uncertainty, county leaders said they hope the 2020s can be defined by their clarity.

The 2010s can best be summed up as an age of turmoil and reckoning for the county, which became one of the national epicenters for the opioid epidemic.

Faced with this crisis, members from all sectors of the community came together to increase access to resources and help those in active addiction. Today, the outlook is looking more promising as the number of reported overdoses continues to decline.

The past decade also brought in a financial crisis, which was the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression of 1929. That near-collapse brought West Virginia economic activity almost to a halt, leaving many people out of work with few prospects for a new career. Today, the economy continues to rebound with unemployment rates at the lowest in years.

In Huntington, Mayor Steve Williams said people who remember the city a decade ago hardly recognize what the city has transformed into today. He lauded the growing downtown scene, which continues to see new developments and more living spaces.

“To look forward, I would encourage people to look over their shoulder at the past 10 years,” he said. “Ten years ago downtown Huntington was still considered by some to be dangerous and was considered to be a lack of development with a lack of activity.”

Anyone could find parking downtown at noon in 2010, he said. Today, parking is harder to find because more people are shopping, running errands and living there. Now, he said, Huntington is being likened to cities twice its size such as Lexington, Kentucky, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

“It really is the most dynamic downtown in the Mid-Ohio Valley and the Mid-Appalachian region,” he said.

The next decade will see rapid improvements in Huntington, he predicted. Planned projects include the proposed Marshall baseball stadium, pedestrian improvements to Hal Greer Boulevard, sewer and flooding alleviation projects and plans for increased broadband connectivity.

“When you have so many projects happening simultaneously, imagine what it was like 10 or 20 years ago, when nothing was happening at all,” he said.

“Those who doubt are the ones that haven’t been involved and are looking in the rear view mirror rather than looking forward to what the possibilities are.”

In the Village of Barboursville, Mayor Chris Tatum said the next decade could be an era of economic growth with new developments at Tanyard Station and the development of a sports complex at Barboursville Park. There’s also the possibility of more diverse restaurants and shopping opportunities with a proposed bridge connecting Cabell County to Ohio.

Building such a bridge would be the final step in completing the long-anticipated Tri-State Outer Belt linking Ohio, West Virginia and key segments of Interstate 64. The proposed bridge is currently in its planning phase and if it’s greenlighted, could take approximately 10 years to come to fruition.

“People are always asking for new and different restaurants, new and different retail opportunities,” he said. “Part of the problem is we don’t have the population density to support some of those companies. I think adding those counties right across from where the proposed bridge is, those numbers add in to the metro population and makes it easier to attract companies in here.”

In 2020, watch for these local developments

HUNTINGTON — The momentum of a new year — either from a fresh start or a re-invigoration after the pause of the holidays — can help launch something new or propel something forward.

In many instances, Tri-State residents have turned their eyes to long-awaited developments, such as a promised baseball stadium, road improvements, or economic engines, with a cautious optimism.

In these or other cases, leaders may have been working diligently behind the scenes for more than the last 12 months, waiting for either the timing, finances or levels of support to be right prior to hitting “start.”

Here is a list of developing issues, projects and ongoing news stories to keep an eye on in the New Year:

Several sewer, flooding projects to launch in 2020

The New Year may be one of momentum for the Huntington Sanitary Board, which launched several projects in 2019 designed to alleviate flooding and other issues around the city.

In early December, Huntington City Council members approved a sewer revenue bond anticipation note for the Water Quality Board, which will help fund $6.2 million in projects.

As part of those projects, the city has awarded a $1.9 million contract to Tribute Contracting & Consultants to build pump stations near 8th and 10th streets. They will pump storm water away from the wastewater system and into storm water lines on the city’s Southside neighborhood, which are under capacity.

It will also spend $2.4 million to clean out an interceptor line. The line carries about 80% of the city’s wastewater and has not been cleaned since it went online in 1958.

Another project that is expected to reduce flooding in the city’s Highlawn neighborhood is the installation of a backflow stopper on outfall lines near the pump station at 5th Avenue and the Guyandotte River. The contract for that work has been awarded to Tribute Contracting and Consultants.

Funding for the projects has already been secured. Most of it comes from a three-step sewer rate increase implemented in February 2017, December 2017 and December 2018. Those increases raised sewer rates overall by 57%.

Coal production declines to continue, according to forecast

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 is “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 (EIA) continued to report throughout the year lower coal production when compared to 2018. The EIA forecasted continuing declines through 2040.

Work to begin in earnest on Marshall baseball stadium

At the tail-end of 2019, crews began demolishing the few buildings situated at the site of the future Marshall University baseball stadium. Official groundbreaking is expected in March, with a completion date estimated for March 2021.

The 3,000-seat stadium, which can be expanded to 3,500 seats for postseason play, will feature three levels, artificial turf, two full-size batting cages, three locker rooms, a team lounge, an indoor and outdoor club level with box suites, and an open and transparent concourse. The ballpark will be located along 5th Avenue just east of Joan C. Edwards Stadium at the site of the former Flint Group Pigments property. The university purchased the land from the Huntington Municipal Development Authority for a total cost of $468,000.

The $22 million stadium, along with the land, is being funded by donations raised by the athletic department.

Plans continue for revitalization of Highlawn brownfields

Discussions are expected to continue this year for the future of the former ACF Industries complex.

The property, located along the north and south sides of 3rd Avenue near 24th Street, is central to a plan to remake that area and surrounding properties into the Huntington Brownfields Innovation Zone, or H-BIZ.

This was a key component of a plan Huntington leaders submitted to the America’s Best Communities competition, winning a $3 million grand prize in April 2017 to help make it a reality.

HMDA members agreed to purchase the 42-acre ACF property for $3.12 million in June.

Huntington Municipal Development Authority Executive Director Cathy Burns previously said there are several interested buyers in the ACF property, but did not reveal who those parties may be.

Whatever goes into the old ACF property, it is expected to complement Marshall University’s planned 3,500-seat baseball stadium, Burns said. That stadium is being built along 8 acres of the former Flint Group Pigments property along the north side of 5th Avenue at 24th Street.

Burns said HMDA’s architect for the ACF property is working with architects for the planned baseball stadium to ensure there is “connectivity” between the two separate developments.

Meanwhile, HMDA still has options to purchase the nearby McGinnis and Ingram Barge industrial sites, which were also key to the America’s Best Communities competition.

Pedestrian improvements expected for Hal Greer Boulevard

Work to make Hal Greer Boulevard safer for pedestrians is expected to kick off in 2020, including the installation of a “danish crossing” near Columbia Avenue and Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Another project will install new light fixtures along Hal Greer from Washington Boulevard to 3rd Avenue.

A Danish crossing is essentially a pedestrian refuge in the roadway. It will be placed in the center turn lane and allow pedestrians to cross half of the roadway and wait in a safe place before crossing the rest of the road.

In July, the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission approved approximately $1.7 million in funding for the two projects. The crossing project recently wrapped up its environmental and design phase, with construction estimated to cost around $825,000. The planning commission is using funds for the project that come from the federal Surface Transportation Block Grant Program.

The new lighting project is expected to cost $950,000, a portion of which will come from federal funds with a match from the city of Huntington. During a recent Huntington City Council meeting, council members approved a resolution to pursue a federal grant, which will begin a design phase for the proposed lighting project.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said lighting improvements along Hal Greer have been a longtime goal of his administration.

Braidy Industries says mill in Ashland remains on schedule

Despite what some skeptics believe, Braidy Industries said in 2019 it remains on schedule to meet its anticipated target of bringing its new aluminum rolling mill at EastPark Industrial Center in Ashland to full commercial operation in 2021.

The company broke ground on the proposed mill in June 2018. The company came under fire in July when it was reported it was in danger of losing a large investment with Russian company Russal if it did not raise $300 million in equity within four months.

Company officials said the report was not accurate and it had raised the $300 million, including another $1 million through a crowdfunding offering to main street investors.

In October, the company released a new economic report focused on Braidy’s potential impact as an employer within Cabell and Wayne counties in West Virginia and Lawrence and Scioto counties in Ohio.

According to the report, estimated annual output in West Virginia would be $238.3 million and $153 million in Ohio. It also reported estimated annual total earnings in West Virginia at $185.3 million and $205.1 million in Ohio.The report stated that West Virginia will experience 61% of the non-Kentucky economic output impact of Braidy and Ohio will experience approximately 39% of it. It also said that 52% of the economic impact of non-Kentucky jobs will occur in West Virginia, while 48% will be in Ohio.

The report claims that nearly one in every six jobs in Wayne County will be tied to Braidy, as well as one in every seven jobs in Lawrence County, Ohio.

This Tri-State economic impact report supplements a previous economic study released in April 2019 on Braidy’s impact on the Commonwealth of Kentucky. That report found that Braidy will spark $2.8 billion in economic growth in Kentucky and $1.54 billion within the six-county Eastern Kentucky region from construction through the first year of production in 2021.

I-64 in Barboursville to be expanded

Before the 2019 holiday shopping season, crews with the Department of Transportation laid cones and shifted lanes in anticipation of the Interstate 64 widening project from Merritts Creek to the Huntington Mall. Phase one of the $71 million project will begin in earnest in the new year, with crews hoping to complete a median to divert traffic before spring.

The project will expand the 2.5 miles of road from four to up to eight lanes and replace five bridges.

Opioid trials may get underway soon

A Cleveland-based federal judge is expected to send a case alleging drug firms fueled the drug epidemic in the Tri-State area back to Huntington to be decided by a local jury, or by settlement.

Cabell County and Huntington are now preparing for trial and could be the first of more than 3,000 cases to go to trial in the country. Huntington-based attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. says while they are working toward settlement, he will seek $500 million from three of the main drug firms during settlement talks prior the trial starting.

The lawsuits argue that manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates coming into the states over the past several years — a duty the lawsuits claim companies have under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Charter schools could begin forming

Charter schools must apply to the county Board of Education by August if they would like to open in 2021 — the first year charter schools will be allowed in West Virginia. Other than during state takeovers — when the unelected state Board of Education can approve charters in a county and convert public schools into charters — elected county school board members will get to approve or deny applications to create charters. However, the process to accept or deny is complicated, and something school boards will continue discussing up until the deadline.

Economic potential for industrial hemp expected to continue

The economic potential for industrial hemp and its products such as CBD, one of the more than 100 phyto-cannabinoids in the hemp plant, continue to be significant. The Hemp Business Journal forecasted hemp product sales to exceed $1 billion in 2019, and the Congressional Research Service cites projections that CBD products alone could exceed $1.3 billion by 2022.

According to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA), industrial hemp farmers in West Virginia more than quadrupled crop production in 2019 compared to the previous year.

Building on the success of 2019, the number of applicants for the 2020 growing season has more than doubled. As of Oct. 1, 2019, 407 applications have been submitted for approval to the WVDA industrial hemp program, and this number was expected to increase as final submissions came into the department.

In Kentucky, approximately a thousand farmers were growing hemp in 2019, up from around 200 in 2018. In 2019, there were over 200 hemp companies and growing, Kentucky officials reported, compared with 70 in 2018.

Kentucky expected over $100 million in Kentucky-grown, Kentuck-processed hemp sales and said those numbers were expected to increase again in 2020.

In Ohio in 2019, the first step toward legalizing hemp in Ohio was taken. Senate Bill 57 was signed into law, decriminalizing hemp and paving the way for the development of the new industry.

In August, the first hemp plants were planted on the Ohio Agriculture Department’s campus. The 100 hemp plants came to Ohio thanks to Acela, a Kentucky company who brought its equipment and expertise.

On Dec. 20, 2018, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which included a provision to legalize the commercial cultivation of industrial hemp. The bill removed industrial hemp from the list of federally controlled substances while clarifying industrial hemp producers may participate in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.

Heartland Intermodal Gateway future at stake

What was once promised to be an economic boon for Wayne County and the surrounding areas now sits empty as state officials prepare to auction off the Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility in Prichard.

The $32 million project has failed to live up to its potential, prompting the move. Originally voted on in July 2019, the West Virginia Department of Transportation granted extra time for local officials to find a suitor interested in operating the facility via lease, but informed the legislature in December that it would move forward with a sale by auction, likely in the first quarter of 2020.

The facility opened in 2015.

Alleged attacker in GD Ritzy beating to be tried

Aaron Rafeal Ingram, 49, who is accused of attempted murder in the May 1, 2018, attack of David Sidney “Sid” Torlone, the then-owner of the restaurant G.D. Ritzy’s, located in the 1300 block of Hal Greer Boulevard in Huntington, is scheduled to go to trial March 31, 2020.

Ingram allegedly used a piece of wire or cord to strangle Torlone before he allegedly took a large metal object and struck Torlone in the head four times. Employees of the store have testified Ingram may have been attempting to recover an IOU note signed to Torlone in the days before the attack.

Beech Fork Lodge feasibility still being debated

The long-discussed construction of a lodge at Beech Fork State Park is closer than it has ever been but still a distant idea. Following a third and final public meeting wrapped around a feasibility study on the proposed Beech Fork Lodge, Wayne County officials fear they will be left with no plans for development after researchers determined the attraction would not see a positive cash flow until its fifth year of operation. Local officials continue to push for the lodge’s construction but believe it will take stronger support from the governor in order for their dream to become a reality.

Health department to finalize vaping ban

First thing on the agenda for the Cabell Huntington Health Department Board of Health in the new year will be to finalize a ban on electronic cigarette use in public spaces. In December, the board voted to move forward with a regulation modeled after the Clean Indoor Air Regulation, which bans smoking products like cigarettes, cigars or pipes in public places including bars and restaurants. The new regulation would similarly ban the use of e-cigarettes, or vapes.

Pending any public comment, the board will vote on the regulation in January.

Marshall Health building new parking garage near hospital

Marshall Health will begin construction on a new parking garage to help alleviate parking issues from the growing health sciences campus along Hal Greer Boulevard. The parking structure will be located in the 1200 block of 15th Street, between Charleston and Columbia avenues at the Erma Byrd Center. It will have four levels with 700-plus parking spots.

Work to begin on new MU facilities

Marshall University will begin working to build the infrastructure needed for the new School of Aviation. Current plans call for an 8,900-square-foot building for Marshall’s aviation school at Yeager Airport in Charleston, scheduled to open in the fall of 2021 at a site between the general aviation area and the 130th Airlift Wing’s flight operations area. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

The university also is conducting a feasibility study to build a residence hall on the South Charleston campus for students in the new school.

Manhunt suspect scheduled to go to trial

A 2020 trial date is expected to occur for Jeremy Dale Bartram, 30. He was charged after a nearly week-long manhunt from June 20-26, 2018, after he allegedly appeared at the home of his ex-girlfriend, with whom he shares a 6-year-old daughter, along Williamsburg Drive in Barboursville and started firing several rounds into her home, injuring three people. Bartram is also accused of shooting at two officers as they searched for him in the days following the original incident.

Genoa and Dunlow consolidation paused

Genoa and Dunlow elementaries will remain open for at least one more year after a proposal to consolidate Wayne County’s two smallest schools failed to receive the needed support.

A proposal to move forward to a final vote died after it did not receive secondary support. Genoa and Dunlow are the two smallest schools in the Wayne school district with enrollment numbers of 71 and 58, respectively.

Superintendent Todd Alexander said the topic could resurface in the future and the closure process would start from the beginning, which could happen as soon as 2020.

Trump signs law to reduce robocalls, though they won't end

NEW YORK — An anti-robocalls measure signed into law Monday by President Donald Trump should help reduce the torrent of unwanted calls promising lower interest rates or pretending to be the IRS, though it won’t make all such calls disappear.

The new law gives authorities more enforcement powers and could speed up measures the industry is already taking to identify robocalls. And when phone companies block robocalls, they must do so without charging consumers. This should help Americans dodge many of these annoying calls.

“American families deserve control over their communications, and this legislation will update our laws and regulations to stiffen penalties, increase transparency, and enhance government collaboration to stop unwanted solicitation,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

The law is a “big victory,” said Consumer Reports’ Maureen Mahoney. “The key is requiring these phone companies to help stop the calls before they reach the consumer and do it at no additional charge.”

The robocall problem has exploded because cheap software makes it easy to make mass calls. Americans collectively get billions of robocalls each month. Such calls have disrupted operations at hospitals by diverting staff time to deal with calls faked to look as though they are coming from inside the hospital. Scams conducted through such calls have also defrauded people out of millions of dollars. Many people now avoid answering calls altogether if they come from unknown numbers.

Under federal law, it’s already illegal to fake numbers on Caller ID to defraud or cause harm. Scams are also prohibited, as are automated telemarketing calls from legitimate companies that don’t already have written permission. YouMail’s robocall index says that half of all robocalls today are fraudulent.

But enforcement has been tough. Federal agencies have fined scammers hundreds of millions of dollars, but it’s been difficult to collect. Many of the callers are overseas. It’s hard to throw the fraudsters in jail. The new law builds on steps taken by the country’s communications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, as well as state attorneys general and industry groups.

The FCC has clarified that phone companies can block unwanted calls without first asking customers, paving the way to broaden the rollout of call-blocking services. The law says phone companies cannot charge for these services.

Another important step is getting rid of “spoofed” numbers, or when a scammer fakes Caller ID to look like it’s coming from the same area code or an important government agency like the IRS.

The new law requires all phone companies to put this system in place, which Mahoney said will mean phone companies have to try to stop these calls before they reach the consumer. This technology doesn’t work for home phones connected to an old-school copper landline; the law calls on the FCC and phone companies to come up with an alternative for those customers.

The FCC also gets more time to fine robocallers and do so without warning them first. The bill also calls for tougher fines when individuals intentionally violate the law and pushes the agency to work with the Justice Department to go after criminals. Over the long term, that could act as a deterrent.

Nonetheless, determined scammers and telemarketers will likely find ways to get through, given the availability of cheap dialing technology and the big potential payoff from victims. Think of how malware on personal computers is still a problem despite antivirus software. Automated callers could circumvent new safety measures by buying or hijacking real numbers to make calls.

“They’ll always find ways around this,” said Paul Florack, vice president of product management for Transaction Network Services, which runs robocall analytics for Verizon, Sprint and other phone companies.

And not every robocall is considered illegal. Some robocalls are helpful reminders from pharmacies that a prescription is ready, or schools advising a snow day. If you’ve given written permission, a cable company or cruise line can pitch you with marketing calls that consist of prerecorded messages. While a House version of the measure would have made it harder for legitimate companies to make such calls, that measure was dropped in the version that became law.

The law also does nothing about telemarketing calls that aren’t automated. A human can still pester you unless you sign up for the Do Not Call registry, which scammers often ignore anyway.

And even when phone companies have in place the system for verifying Caller ID, not all phones support it. A year ago, T-Mobile started telling customers if the number ringing them was “verified,” but it can’t do that on Apple’s iPhones until after the call has ended. That’s because Apple software doesn’t allow it, Florack said. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The law says phone companies can’t charge extra for blocking robocalls, though it doesn’t require that such services or apps be made available to everyone. AT&T’s version, for instance, isn’t rolled out yet to its 18 million customers on lower-income-skewing prepaid plans.

But ideally, Mahoney said, a consumer wouldn’t have to take any action by downloading an app — as the carrier would be able to block calls automatically.