PARKERSBURG - Sen. Jay Rockefeller met Wednesday with glassmakers to discuss the issues facing the industry in West Virginia.
About a dozen people attended the roundtable discussion, representing glass manufacturing companies from throughout the state as well as area tourism and business groups.
"The glass industry to me is representative of everything that is creative and interesting and hard," he said. "I respect what you do. I'm interested in what you do. I want to see you do more of it."
Rockefeller in Parkersburg
But the state's glass manufacturing industry has seen a rapid decline during the last 20-30 years, officials said. At one point more than 470 glass manufacturing businesses were in West Virginia. Today fewer than a dozen are still in business.
The roundtable discussion Wednesday, held at the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, focused on the factors that have caused the industry's decline and what could be done to reverse the trend.
"In our situation, we are seeing many trends that are affecting us," said George Fenton, president of Fenton Art Glass. "We boomed in the '90s. We have cratered in this decade."
Photo by Michael Erb
George Fenton, left, president of Fenton Art Glass, speaks Wednesday to Sen. Jay Rockefeller as part of a roundtable discussion of the state’s declining glass manufacturing industry.
Among the factors have been an overall decline in consumer interest in collectibles, more competition and even outright pirating of designs from Chinese businesses, the downturn in the economy and a shift in the marketing of collectibles.
Fenton said big-box stores have forced many of the mom-and-pop-style collectible stores out of business and imported items are manufactured for a fraction of the price of local manufacturing.
Fenton also said in general consumers are not buying collectible pieces and have drifted from home-decor style gifts to fashion accessories, causing more specialty shops to carry beads and purses rather than vases and bowls.
"That's why we are doing beads now," he said.
Beri Fox of Marble King said Chinese companies pirating designs, hoarding manufacturing products and driving up the price of raw materials while selling items at rock-bottom prices to American companies has made it impossible for local manufacturers to compete.
"There is no accountability," she said. "There is no protection for us."
"We're not competing in a world market," said Chip Turner of Appalachian Glass Products. "We are just opening the door and saying run over us."
Those gathered said in addition to adapting to a changing consumer market, more needed to be done at the federal level to help small American manufacturers and specialty shops to not be buried by large chain stores and foreign competition.
"We're not asking to be subsidized. We are not asking for a bailout like the banks," Fox said. "What we are asking for is it to be fair, and it's not."
"We're just slowly being put out of business," Turner said. "What's left is sitting in this room. When it is gone, it's gone."
Wednesday's meeting marked the fourth roundtable discussion in Rockefeller's "Make It In America" tour in West Virginia.