Official: CNG will stay in Clarksburg
by Troy Graham

    Hope Gas Co. and CNG Transmission will stay in Clarksburg.
    That's the first issue that Ron Adams wanted to make clear following the announcement that Consolidated Natural Gas Co., the parent company of Hope and CNG Transmission, will be bought out by Dominion Resources Inc., a Virginia power company. "We're in this building and we'll stay in this building," said Adams, a CNG senior vice president who came to Clarksburg from Pittsburgh Monday. Despite his assurances, Adams could offer few specifics on the impact the deal would have on the 500 to 600 employees here who work for CNG Transmission and Hope Gas Co.
    In a press release, the companies said they expect "minimal workforce reductions as a result of this merger." But greater efficiency and the reduction of duplicate services were selling points of the deal.  Adams said he had no specifics on what areas of the companies could be targeted for reductions or where services duplicate. "I can't elaborate in any detail," Adams said.
    A transition team of two CNG and two Dominion officials, which has been set up to implement the merger, will look into  those details over the next year. Employees said there was some concern about the future, but the mood was business as usual around the office Monday. "It could have been worse" if another gas company bought CNG, said one employee. "Time will tell." "We have a track record of treating employees fairly and equitably and that will continue," said Dominion Chairman Tom Capps.
    Dominion, the parent company of Virginia Power, is mainly an energy company that has few similarities to CNG's natural gas operations, Adams said. Although Dominion has a 50-employee natural gas production operation in Jane Lew, there is "not much overlap" between the companies, he said.
    Under the terms of the deal, Dominion will buy all of CNG's stock, converting each share into 1.52 shares of Dominion stock. CNG stockholders will own 43 percent of the combined company.
    The company, which will use the Dominion Resources name, will be the nation's fourth largest electric and gas utility, serving 4 million customers. The company will have $23.9 billion in assets and 17,000 employees.
    Capps described the deal as a "marriage truly made in Heaven" that will create "one gorilla of a company." Dominion wanted to strengthen its company through a merger and CNG "was the prettiest gal at the ball." Officials anticipate that it will take a year to fully integrate the two companies and receive all the necessary state and federal approvals. The companies must also receive shareholder approval.
    CNG Chairman George Davidson said one of the advantages  of the deal was that the companies have a similar management structure. CNG restructured its management in December, but Adams said it was not done in anticipation of the deal. "We restructured back in December as a stand alone enterprise," he said.
The restructuring will result in layoffs of 5 percent of CNG's employees a greater impact on the workforce than the merger, Adams said.
    CNG officials have long denied a merger or sale was in the works. In a Nov. 30 letter to a union representing CNG employees, the company said it was not seeking a deal. Adams said Monday that there were no "detailed discussions" at that time. "As with any company today, there's always talk among companies about 'what if,'" he said.
    Analysts see the combining of the gas and power companies as the beginning of a trend. An almost identical merger also took place Monday on the West Coast. Sempra Energy, a San Diego power company, bought out the stock of KN Energy, a Colorado gas company.
    "I'm not surprised. I think we'll see a lot more," said Timothy W. Merrill, the president of Competitive Energies Strategies Co. "It reflects that people see things going in the same direction." Deregulation of energy companies across the nation has made competition more fierce, he said.
    "Overall the major drivers are competition and restructuring," said Merrill, a Pittsburgh-based consultant. "The economies of scale are much different than under the old regulatory models we had for 125 years." Dave Ellis, the director of the Utilities Division of the state Public Service Commission, described the mergers as a sort of "one-stop shopping" for energy consumers.
    The state PSC must approve the merger. Ellis said he expects a significant filing on the combined company's finances, operations and organization in the coming months. Gov. Cecil Underwood was briefed on the merger by CNG officials Sunday night, said Spokesman Dan Page. "It's too early to tell right now what direct effect this will have on West Virginia," he said.
    It's also too early to tell what effect the merger will have on  the PSC's inquiry into the December CNG restructuring. The PSC held a hearing with top CNG management last month to discuss the move. The commission had planned to rule on whether CNG must seek the commission's approval to restructure its management. "At this point, I don't know if they'll put that inquiry on hold," Ellis said. The PSC does expect the combined company to live up to a three-year rate freeze that Hope Gas agreed to last year, he said.
    CNG officials also said they will live up to a contract agreement ratified by the Allegheny Mountain Gas Workers' Union late last year. The contract calls for "effects bargaining" in case of a sale or merger.
    Union officials said Monday it was too early to tell what steps they would take, but all four CNG unions had a meeting planned for today with management in Pittsburgh. "We're going into it with an open mind and with a positive attitude," said Bryan Ash, the vice president of the gas workers' union.

Plans for facelift  presented to council
by Paul Leakan

    Clarksburg city officials were presented with a $9 million strategic plan for the downtown Monday that consultants believe could give the area a facelift without destroying its integrity.
    The plan to develop the downtown is not a 'bulldozer' approach, a method of revitalization where cities demolish buildings in order to promote development, said David C. Slater, vice president of Hammer, Siler, George Associates of Silver Spring, Md. "What we're doing here is more sensitive to the cultural resources of the community," Slater said.
    The plan, which was prepared by Hammer, Siler, George Associates and MSES Consultants of Clarksburg, takes advantage of the recent development in the area while improving what is already in the city, Slater said.
    The plan recommends restoring the city's rich architectural history by exploring the possibility of developing the Waldomore building into a cultural center or museum. The old city hall building could also be marketed and developed.
The plan, however, also recommends that dozens of blighted houses and buildings be purchased by the city and demolished. It also seeks to add several construction projects, additional parking areas, more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and intersections and improved lighting. Members of the Clarksburg City Council were presented with the plan during a 10 a.m. conference session Monday in the Municipal Building.
    A major portion of the downtown plan seeks to make Clarksburg more pedestrian-friendly. More rest benches would be installed near bus stops and retail businesses. Certain existing sidewalks would be demolished and replaced with new curbs and sidewalks.
    New light poles are also being recommended for several areas of the downtown. The plan recommends, for example, the installation of 29 light poles along West Main Street from Chestnut Street to E.B. Saunders Way. The plan also would add five traffic lights to the same area. The city's parking woes could be lessened by a proposed addition of 108 parking spaces.
Residents would have a place to relax at a proposed green space located in an area between South Third Street and South Fourth Street on Trader's Avenue.
    The green space would include a grass and brick area with planters, walking areas and a center clock tower with four faces. A 61-space parking lot would be installed next to it.
    Another green space is proposed near Washington and Irving Middle School area on Washington and Lee Avenues.
The plan also proposes three walking trails that would allow people to traverse through the downtown and its surroundings. The trail, the exact location of which was not indicated, would be ranked according to its degree of difficulty.
    While council showed its support for much of the plan, they also showed concern for how the city will be able to afford it.
The total cost for recommendations in the plan range from $9.4 million to $9.6 million.
Council members said they likely will discuss the parts of the plan they will support, how money can be secured for the projects and how they can put some of the plan into action.
    "It's a very ambitious plan," said Councilwoman Kathy Folio. "The challenges, of course, are financial.  "If we want to go forward with this we have to be very judicious with how we spend the city's tax dollars."

Announcement source of relief for business owners
by Paul Leakan

    The announcement that Consolidated Natural Gas Co. planned a press conference Monday morning had Clarksburg residents, business owners and city officials gasping in anticipation. The question? CNG Transmission and Hope Gas in Clarksburg: Will they stay or will they go? The answer? CNG will merge with Dominion Resources Inc. of Virginia to form the nation's fourth largest electric and gas utility.
    And according to CNG and Dominion officials, the merger will not lead to any job cuts in Clarksburg in the short term.
The merger allowed several business owners and officials from the city and county to let loose a collective sigh of relief. Simply put, CNG and Hope Gas are way too important to lose.
    The rumors about CNG leaving the city spread faster than butter on hot bread at the Country  Kitchen restaurant in Clarksburg. "Everybody has been wondering whether they would leave or not," said manager Cookie Salerno. "There's a lot of people that come in here and don't know whether they'll have a job from one day to the next."
    The reassurance from Dominion officials that CNG Transmission and Hope Gas in Clarksburg will remain an important part of the combined company was good news to Salerno. After all, employees of the gas company provide a huge chunk of her business.
    "They're just our regulars, really. Between them and people who work at the banks, that's most of our business."
Luella Wolford, manager at T&L Hot Dogs in Clarksburg, hopes that CNG Transmission and Hope Gas stay in the city for good. Wolford estimates that about 12 to 15 employees from either company eat lunch at T&L everyday.
    The stakes are also high for the United Way of Harrison County, which receives its largest contributions from CNG.
"They are far and away the largest corporate contributor," said Ken Moslander, executive director of the Harrison County United Way.
    CNG donated more than $40,000 to the United Way of Harrison County in 1998, Moslander said. The next closest contributor, UCAR, donated more than $14,000.
    Harrison County would also take a 'major hit' if it were to lose CNG Transmission and Hope Gas, said Ray Farley, executive director of the Harrison County Development Authority. "It would be extremely difficult for North Central West Virginia to replace those 600 jobs if they left because those are high-skill, high-paying jobs."
    The fear that CNG would leave never crossed the mind of Bob Caplan, executive director of the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce. "I have always felt all along that they would keep their presence here in Clarksburg. I never had that fear that they would pull out."
    Bridgeport Mayor Joe Timms, a former CNG Transmission president, said he was not surprised by the merger. "With all the changes going on in the utility industry, you're going to have to deal with whatever change comes. The best thing that we can hope for right now is that Dominion will make a stronger company, and that strength will come with even more stability and employment."


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Copyright Clarksburg Publishing Company 1999