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Glass company returns to nearly full production following chapter 11

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The Blenko Visitors Center in Milton attracts thousands of visitors each year. The Blenko Visitors Center in Milton attracts thousands of visitors each year.

For The State Journal

MILTON — It's a new day for Blenko Glass Co., which successfully emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 5.

"We've got no place to go but up and that's where we're headed," said Blenko Vice President Katie Trippe. "Coming out of bankruptcy has given us a remarkable opportunity and we intend to take full advantage of it. The odds are stacked against companies that go the bankruptcy route, and we feel truly fortunate that things have worked out as they have for us."

Known worldwide for its hand — blown decorative glass designs, Blenko is nearly the sole survivor of a once — thriving West Virginia glass industry that in the past numbered more than 400 companies. Beset by a list of problems — including soaring natural gas prices, foreign competition and a widespread switch from glass containers to plastic — virtually all those companies have vanished.

Blenko itself has navigated its way through a sea of financial troubles in recent years. It briefly shut down production in January 2009 after its bank accounts were emptied by a gas supplier to which it owed $500,000.

The glassmaker resumed partial production two months later but continued to struggle with unpaid bills. In May 2011 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, indicating it owed a total of $3.24 million to at least 50 creditors. It continued to operate but faced an uncertain future.

Since then, Trippe said, Blenko and its creditors have reached agreement on a payment plan for its debts. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson in Charleston approved that plan in December and ruled the company could officially emerge from bankruptcy on March 5.

Trippe called the recent decline in the price of natural gas — used by Blenko to fire its furnaces — "helpful" in the company's ability to successfully reorganize. "Obviously any time we're able to reduce a major expense it's beneficial to the business."

At the same time, she said, a steady stream of orders for its colorful glassware has enabled the company to return to nearly full production. "We currently have 43 people working. That's basically what we had before the bankruptcy, minus a couple of retirements. We've had no significant change in staffing."

The company currently is operating five furnaces, Trippe said.

"We have the ability to turn on and turn off furnaces based on demand," she explained. "We have two different kinds of furnaces — pot furnaces and tank furnaces. Any time our demand grows significantly we turn on a propane - fueled tank furnace. Then we can turn it off when we no longer need it."

Trippe said the company is encouraged by the recent orders it has received.

"You have no idea how pleased we are with some of the orders we're getting," she said. "In recent months, we've been approached by a number of major retailers for new projects. These include Rejuvenation Lighting, which is a Williams-Sonoma company, Lenox and Neiman Marcus. All three of these are catalogue - based, which is really where our industry is going. There are still brick and mortar stores, of course. But most people are ordering our things through catalogues."

Looking ahead, Trippe said Blenko will have its usual annual events at its Visitor Center in Milton, including its Warehouse Sale, set for March 16-30, and Festival of Glass, planned for Aug. 2 and 3.

Each year, Blenko issues a limited edition handcrafted piece of glassware to mark the June 20 anniversary of West Virginia statehood.

"This year, the state's 150th anniversary, we want that piece to be truly special," she said. "Designer Arlon Bayliss is coming in later this month to meet with our workers and get things started on the piece." An internationally known glass artist, Bayliss is a professor of art at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind.

Blenko has been a family owned and operated company since 1893. It's been located in Milton since 1921. The company long has been known for its stained glass, which can be found in the National Cathedral in Washington, the Cathedral of Rheims in France, the chapel of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado and elsewhere. The company began crafting colorful handblown glassware in the 1930s in order to keep afloat during the Great Depression.

The Blenko Visitors Center, located at 9 Bill Blenko Drive, just off U.S. 60 in Milton, attracts thousands of visitors each year, especially during the busy summer travel season. Many avid Blenko collectors make an annual pilgrimage to the center, which offers a wide selection of glassware for sale, along with a schedule of factory tours. Winter hours at the center are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from Noon to 4 p.m. The center's summer hours, which begin in May, will see it stay open until 5 p.m. daily.