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- -Text: George Thornburg, owner of Thornburg's 29th Street Food Market in Huntington places fresh produce out to sell outside of his store Thursday morning. Thornburg will be closing his market after 36 years of service.

Back in the 1990s and halfway through the first decade of the 2000s, I was the business reporter here at The Herald-Dispatch. Or, as one editor at the time called the beat, BLIF — business, labor, industry and finance.

The decade before that, I covered Lawrence County, Ohio. I spent a lot of time covering business there, too.

It was a great time to cover business here in Huntington and the surrounding area. In Lawrence County, I covered the rise and the demise of Ironton Iron Inc., an employee-owned company that took over the former Dayton Malleable Inc. foundry. There were controversies surrounding a coal dock in the upper end of Ironton. And there were Superfund remediation sites to deal with contamination left behind by defunct factories.

On the West Virginia side of the river, we had Ashland Coal, which was the only Huntington-based company with stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange. There were changes within Ashland Oil, a Fortune 500 company later known as Ashland Inc., that eventually led to its exit from the area. We had changes in the local banking industry with consolidations, startups and rollups. We had names such as Twentieth Street Bank, First Huntington National Bank, KeyCenturion Bancshares and One Valley Bank that are no longer with us.

We had Inco Alloys International, which left the area when it sold its local operations to Special Metals. That company went into bankruptcy and was acquired by another one.

If there's a pattern here that points to one of the region's present-day problems, it's that merger-and-acquisition activity among businesses and industries on a national scale has come at a cost to communities like Huntington, Ironton and Ashland.

We've lost close to an entire level of economic activity. Layers of management expertise have left town. We've lost the deep pockets of national and international companies and their willingness to donate money and employees' time to local causes.

While all this was going on, the arrival of megabox chain stores has nearly wiped out the local merchant class. When a local merchant closes, or even a regional one when a super-regional moves into the market, rarely does a younger one step up to take its place.

We still have local and regional businesses of note - the FoodFair chain of supermarkets come to mind - but there's no question the consolidation drive has driven down the number of locally owned and operated businesses.

Few of the large private-sector employers here have deep roots in their communities. There are some, yes, but not as many as before. No one has stepped up to fill the roles abandoned by Ashland Inc. and AK Steel, among others.

Ashland Inc. moved its headquarters to Covington, Kentucky, 20 years ago after it put its local operations into a joint venture with Marathon Petroleum. Ashland's corporate officers were invested in this community. The company left for several reasons. Institutional investors demanded the move for some reason. Ashland found it difficult to get its employees, its vendors and its customers into and out of the area because of the air service locally. And, as one company spokesman told me, Ashland wanted to increase its minority hiring in its management ranks, and this area was a tough sell to young talent that was in demand.

Today Ashland is known as Ashland Global Holdings Inc. It specializes in the chemical business, having divested itself of its petroleum and construction divisions. It has a new brand identity, and there is little to attach it to its history in this area, where it was founded in 1924 by Paul G. Blazer.

There remains a question.

Will the next Paul Blazer make his fortune here? Can he?

Jim Ross is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@HDMediaLLC.com.

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