WILLIAMSTOWN -A new company wants to restart production at Fenton Art Glass Company and repackage the product for a new generation of customers.
Gene Bem, chairman and CEO of U.S. Glass, said the company hopes to offer Fenton and possibly other brands of glass to stores such as Macy's and Neiman Marcus.
The family-owned Fenton Art Glass has been a fixture in Williamstown and the Mid-Ohio Valley since the facility was built in 1906. In recent years, the business struggled with rising costs, declining sales and growing debt.
Photos by Michael Erb
Fenton glassware lines a shelf Thursday at the Fenton Gift Shop.
In July 2011 the company announced it would stop production of all of its classic glass lines. The plant laid off most of its workforce, but continues to produce decorative beads.
The Fenton Gift Shop remained open and is a separate business from the plant, though it is housed in the same facility.
Bem said he and other officials are negotiating with the Fenton family and investors to restart production of the Williamstown-based company's signature line of decorative glass products.
"Our concept is we are going to take the Fenton brand and refresh it for a modern customer," he said. "We believe that we can relaunch the Fenton brand and get it into higher-end markets."
Bem said the plan would be to have production restarted at the plant as early as August, and to have it up to full capacity by 2013. Bem also said officials are looking at offering the plant as a manufacturing site for other glass products using local workers.
"We see the Williamstown plant as a special place because you have labor and expertise in the glass making process you don't find other places," he said.
But Fenton President George Fenton said Thursday no deal has been made final.
"Nothing has been decided yet," he said. "It would be wonderful if it worked out, but it might not."
The announcement follows an auction Thursday of Fenton Art Glass assets. The auction, conducted by the Centrus Group, was closed to the public and media, with only "pre-approved buyers" who had registered by May 18 through Centrus allowed into a second-floor meeting room at the Fenton plant. Less than a dozen bidders attended the auction.
The auction lasted about an hour, with Randy Fenton, president of and a major shareholder of the Fenton Gift Shop, winning all factory assets through a bulk bid of $200,000. Those assets included molds and tools, company rights to logos, names, colors and styles, a list of all wholesale dealers and exclusive glass formulas.
Bem and Randy Fenton said they have been in discussions to bring the gift shop in as a shareholder in U.S. Glass.
"I've spoken with Gene several times, and I think the gift shop would be interested in discussing further the potential relationship between the gift shop and U.S. Glass," Randy Fenton said Thursday.
"We're optimistic something really nice can come out of those discussions."
Randy Fenton said his negotiations have focused on the gift shop's role with U.S. Glass rather than the company taking over the Fenton factory, but said he was hopeful an agreement could be reached by all sides. Randy Fenton said he hoped the purchase of the factory assets would move those negotiations forward.
"I'm looking forward to having a good result come out of this, and I know George and Gene are too," Randy Fenton said.
Many details still need to be worked out, but Bem said he hopes to see written agreements signed on key issues within the next few weeks.
Thursday's auction did not resolve the issue of the property itself. More than $600,000 in back taxes is still owed on the property and the roughly 300,000-square-foot facility.
"We are trying to work with that group so that everybody wins," Bem said.
George Fenton said the family has been working with the Wood County Sheriff's Tax Department to resolve the debt.
"That is still an issue we have to deal with," he said.
Bem said the Parkersburg-based Interactivity Foundation has been a major catalyst in bringing U.S. Glass and Fenton Art Glass together.
"Without them this likely would not have happened," he said. "They have been instrumental."
Jack Byrd, a professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown and president of the Interactivity Foundation, said the project to bring Fenton under the U.S. Glass banner began several months ago when he was contacted by Bem after sending out an alumni email containing news on Fenton.
"He asked if I could put him into contact with George Fenton," Byrd said. "I had worked with George in the past."
Byrd said work on negotiating a deal has been going on for about three months. A major selling point of the purchase is a skilled and ready workforce for the plant.
"They really want to use the workforce that is here, and they really want to build that workforce locally," Byrd said. "They really see that skilled workforce as being a plus for their investment.
"For me personally, I have a real interest in glass itself," Byrd said, "but it's exciting to help get some people back to work and that's what I'm really hoping this will do."
Interactivity Foundation is a private foundation which engages citizens in discussion about areas of concern. It was founded by the late Parkersburg area businessman, Julius (Jay) Stern.