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Archives for December 23, 2013

Cool for Cats

Ms. Benjamin, 42, started blogging about her favorite things for cats in 2007, and over time a business began to emerge. Readers posted fan mail. Boutique manufacturers started advertising on her site and sending samples for her to review. And the number of cats in her 1,100-square-foot condominium grew. (At last count, she had 11.)

As her advertising revenue climbed, Ms. Benjamin quit her day job as the marketing director of Boon, a company that sells modern baby products, and opened a design studio where she and her employees could create cat toys and accessories to sell on her website. And last year, she re-branded her Moderncat blog as Hauspanther, an “online magazine for design-conscious cat people.”

Next on the horizon is a consulting business built around the concept of “catification”: tailoring your living space to the needs of your cat without sacrificing aesthetics.

“The idea is to influence the mass cat-product industry to step up their game,” said Ms. Benjamin, who has teamed up with Jackson Galaxy, the cat behaviorist from the television show “My Cat From Hell,” for this effort. “We just want to be the go-to source for anyone who wants to live stylishly with cats.”

As the tattoo on her arm announces, Ms. Benjamin is positioning herself as a cat lady for a new generation. A vegan with Bettie Page bangs, she has upended the old stereotype of the frumpy, middle-aged woman surrounded by cats. And her two-bedroom townhouse here is a showcase of the latest in feline interior design.

The living room is filled with all manner of cat beds, scratchers, hiding spots and perches, including a miniature sun bed attached to sliding glass doors that open to a catio (a patio enclosed for the protection of her cats). The centerpiece on the dining table is not a flower arrangement or a fruit bowl, but a white porcelain cat bed designed to look like a sink. On the coffee table is a thronelike cat lounge that doubles as a scratcher. And a huge basket of cat toys is stationed next to the sofa.

“It is a little bit over the top,” said Ms. Benjamin, who admits to showering in the second bathroom because the master bath has been given over to litter boxes. But that’s all right, she said, because it means the cats “all have lots of options. Rarely is there a fight over places to sit.”

The crush of cat products is an inevitable consequence of having a blog that serves up a different item every day, along with a dose of attitude you won’t find in the plain-vanilla pages of a magazine like Cat Fancy.

Readers leave comments, some gushing, others critical, as well as suggestions. (The new site gets about 150,000 page views a month, she said, but it is still building traffic; the old site, which she shuttered to avoid a lawsuit with a Canadian magazine that had adopted the Modern Cat name, got around 350,000.) The product manufacturers, which tend to be mom-and-pop shops, use the feedback to refine their wares and develop new items — which, of course, they send to Ms. Benjamin to review.

Some of these companies advertise on her site or have affiliate arrangements with Ms. Benjamin, who gets a flat fee or a percentage of sales when a customer clicks through from her blog and buys something (although she won’t say exactly how much that amounts to over the course of a year). But others pay nothing to be on her site.

“I keep my editorial honest and straightforward, regardless of whether or not I’m receiving any compensation,” she said. “One of my favorite things to do is to help promote a new or small company just because they make great products that my readers need to know about.”

As far as she is concerned, she said, what it comes down to is good design.

“I would like to see every cat in a happy, loving, forever home, and I want to keep them there through design,” said Ms. Benjamin, who studied environmental design and analysis, with an emphasis on interior design, at Cornell and branched out into industrial design and visual communications at Arizona State University. “Because if somebody doesn’t want to buy a scratcher because the scratchers are so ugly, and then the cat scratches on the sofa, the cat’s booted onto the street or taken to the shelter. If a product design can help change that, that’s where I want to see this go.”

The people whose products appear on Hauspanther credit Ms. Benjamin with helping to build the market for designer cat furniture, a small but growing category. Once her blog became a go-to place for furnishings that appealed equally to cats and their owners, these vendors say, more specialty retailers cropped up, widening the product mix, and big chain stores like Walmart and Target began carrying nicer-looking cat products.

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Hershey Gardens creates scholarship competition

HERSHEY — Hershey Gardens and Ames True Temper created the Garden Design Scholarship Competition for students in grades 10 to 12.

The competition is for students who are homeschooled or enrolled in a public, private or vocational-technical school in Cumberland, Perry, Dauphin, York, Adams, Berks, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Northumberland and Schuylkill counties.

The competition is offered for students who are interested in gardening, horticulture, landscape architecture, the arts and the development of public gardens as a community resource.

The design team awarded first place will receive $1,200 and work with Hershey Gardens staff to install their winning design at Hershey Gardens. Each member of the winning design team will also receive a one-year membership to Hershey Gardens.

Designs may be submitted by one student or teams of up to four students.

Second- and third-place awards will also be given.

The deadline for registering is Friday, Jan. 17, and design entries must be submitted by Friday, March 14. Additional details, submission requirements and a downloadable registration form can be found at Individuals or schools may also call 717-508-5968.

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Jane Milliman: Books for gardeners

Stuck for gifts for gardening friends or ways to educate and entertain yourself through winter’s downtime? Think books.

One of my favorite 2013 releases is Amanda Thomsen’s Kiss My Aster (Storey Publishing, $13), a wacky journey of personal gardening discovery made in the choose-your-own-adventure style, mainly for beginners. Thomsen is a whirlwind of humorous energy, and her illustrated paperback doles out such advice as to never trust a landscape architect wearing white, high heels, or a fake moustache, and to plant no more than two topiaries per yard (“more than that is just crazy to look at”).

Beyond the silliness, she gives the reader a lot to chew on regarding what we want to get out of, and put into, our gardens. Thomsen has a fun blog, too (, and a pair of flaming Felco pruners tattooed on one shoulder.

I’ve already given Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin Books, $12) some praise in this space, but I mention it again to be sure it’s not missed. Stewart has figured out a way to make such topics as poisonous plants, deadly insects and the international cut flower trade palatable to non-gardeners, and hits it out of the park with this gem that mixes bartending with the history and science of horticulture.

Stewart herself would like you to read her friend Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things (Viking Adult, $28.95), about a woman who is a moss expert in the world of 19th century botanical exploration. (You can read her review on I have shied away from Gilbert’s earlier blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love, but I’ll buy this, if Amy Stewart says to — I trust her even more than Oprah.

If you’re planning to attend the Rochester Civic Garden Center’s spring symposium on March 1, bone up in advance with headline speaker Julie Moir Messervy’s brand-new Landscaping Ideas that Work (Taunton Press, $21.95),which promises strategies to combat confusion and inertia in the garden. (I could use some of those for outside the garden, too.) Better yet, buy a ticket to the symposium for yourself and your best gardening friend at, and if you like what Messervy has to say, buy the book there and get it signed.

Like many women who garden, I’m besotted by anything having to do with Beatrix Potter, Tasha Tudor or Miss Rumphius. So my last recommendation, another from my wish list is Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales by Marta McDowell (Timber Press, $24.95). Rich with photographs and Potter’s watercolors, this is destined to be a coffee table classic.

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Lighting up the holiday nights – Glens Falls Post

GLENS FALLS — Paul Smith stood in his front yard, bathed in thousands of lights from his annual Christmas display, and flashed a smile as bright as any holiday bulb.

“I’ve got some tremendous plans for next year,” said Smith, whose yard and house at 22 Clayton Ave. has been a holiday destination and local landmark for a quarter-century. “You just wait.”

Despite Thursday’s chilly weather, dozens of people, many of them children, trooped through the well-worn paths in his yard, gaping at the lights, small buildings and other ornaments large and small. On one side of the house is a manger, sitting across from a display window that hosts a huge, light-up ceramic village. On the roof is an angel with wings and around the yard are all types of holiday decorations.

Unlike other homes that invite a slow ride past, Smith’s begs a visit.

“There are more than 20 buttons to push, and every one of them does something special,” said Smith, who is especially proud of a newly constructed helicopter that lifts Santa above the house when the right button gets pushed. “If you drive by, you’ll miss too much.”

He’s constantly looking for ways to improve — he and his 12-year-old daughter Chelsea went to a “Christmas in July” event in Tennessee this summer to learn about the latest technology.

Another Santa, along with the chimney he is deposited into with the push of another button, is the oldest piece in the display, dating back to the first year.

“I am guessing it was 26 years ago,” Smith said.

Those who have been visiting Smith’s display over the years will notice something different this time around. A small building with an inside display, which used to be along one side of the yard, has been moved to the front.

While the Santa and chimney — which were donated to Smith by Storytown USA founder Charles R. Wood — are the oldest pieces in the show. The newest are 12 clear tubes filled with LEDs called “Cosmic Color Ribbons,” which are made by Light-O-Rama, an international company based in South Glens Falls.

Each flexible weatherproof strip has 150 super bright color LEDs spaced evenly along its length and comes with a controller that allows it to be programmed. Smith has them set to flash various designs along with music after visitors press one of three buttons on a control panel. The speakers are positioned so the music that plays in time with the lights can only be heard in front of them, and the music playing by the driveway and beyond can only be heard there.

The strips are set up to look like a Christmas tree, with a big star at the top.

“I had to put it over there. It’s 23 feet tall. It would have been three feet above the roof,” he said.

Getting popular

Smith is far from the only homeowner to use Light-O-Rama’s cosmic ribbons. Like many other who spend their holidays showing off their homes, Smith is watching ABC’s “The Great American Light Fight,” a series that matches complex, decorated homes against one another.

Dan Baldwin, who with his wife, Mary, runs Light-O-Rama, has also been watching.

“I would say two-third of the people competing are our customers,” he said. “The guy who won the other night was definitely one of ours.”

That particular home decorator was Brian Larsen, who owns a landscaping company and has more than 1 million lights on his home in Elburn, Ill.

“That one was really amazing,” Smith said. “I love to watch that stuff.”

He also loves to make things, putting to use his experience as an installer with Mahoney Alarms Inc. of Glens Falls, where he worked until being seriously injured in a car crash about 10 years ago. He combines his own knowledge of electricity with an ability to find others who can help him find what he needs and put it together.

“It’s amazing how much people help with this,” Smith’s wife, Pam, said. “We get a lot of donations, and people just really love to see it grow.”

Smith begins his projects in September, working by himself most of the time. His accident left him with issues with his short-term memory, so when he’s building something new, like the helicopter or the color-ribbon display, he has to carefully detail his trial and error.

Eventually, as he gets closer, he has friends help, and by Thanksgiving night, he’s almost always ready to go. This year, because of all the changes, he was one day late, but his display looks better than ever.

Industry leader

Just as the Smiths’ display has changed and expanded, the Baldwins’ company has gotten much larger in the 15 years since they moved from New Jersey and to the forefront of lighting displays.

So much has happened in that time that even Baldwin himself sounds incredulous at times.

“We’re only seeing the beginning of what’s going to start happening with automated, animated lights,” Dan Baldwin said. “It used to be you had lights that were one color, and you might have three strands of different colors and light them at different times.

“Now you have the RGB (red, green, blue) lights, which means every light can be any color you want it to be at any one time,” he said. “Now every light has a mind of its own.”

Even though he knows what the lights can do and is the one who sells them, Baldwin remains amazed at what people do with them.

“It’s mind-boggling the scale some people go with this stuff,” he said. “You measure lights in channels, the zones of lights you have, and there are some people who have 20,000 or 30,000 channels. That’s mind-blowing.”

Smith will never have anything on that scale. He’s limited by his space.

But don’t forget, he’s got some wild ideas for next year.

“OK, look at the cosmic ribbons now,” he said. “They’re in the shape of a Christmas tree.

“Now, even them out and make them horizontal,” he said, speaking a little faster and getting excited. “Imagine you could have the music playing and the lights flashing so you could see the words to the Christmas carol flashing on the ribbon. You could have kids standing here, reading the words and singing along.

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

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Bobby Vega’s Urban Conservation Corps turns around lives

photo by Frank Perez
Urban Conservation Corps crew boss Martown Morgan, 28, of Yucaipa, left, and lead supervisor Jimmy Larios, 26, of San Bernardino teach Waterman Gardens resident Amanda Brooks, 22, how to use a ride mower.


Read more about heroes in your community in our 12 Days of Christmas Series.

SAN BERNARDINO Bobby Vega barely glanced at the spreadsheets and other documentation that are carefully gathered to show that the Urban Conservation Corps he leads transforms the lives of local young people and is worthy of the grants that continue to fund it.

He brushed aside mention of recent praise by city officials of how his corps members have cleaned up parks in the city and local mountains, including a rapid turn-around in response to criticism of the condition of the Feldheym Central Library.

He laughed at the number of meetings he’s asked to attend.

“I don’t have time for that,” he said. “I don’t care about what some agency thinks or about conservation. I care about these people, and I know it’s working because I’m not attending funerals. I’m not getting phone calls from parents saying their kids are being incarcerated.”

Vega, deputy director of the San Bernardino-based Urban Conservation Corps, said he’s learned from a 44-year lifetime in the city — growing up on its Westside and getting to know generations of people with serious issues — to do what needs to be done, rather than what’s supposed to be done.

“This is a place for second chances, third chances,” he said. “If we said it was gang intervention, no one would want anything to do with us, so we say we’re the conservation corps. And that means they get to be outside — in a place that’s theirs — and they learn a skill that can take them someplace.”

Vegas is a member of the city Parks and Recreation Commission and before that the Police Commission,

Since Vega started the Urban Conservation Corps of the Inland Empire five years ago, hundreds of people have come through, including about 60 currently involved, he said.

Young people from 18 to 24, some on probation, attend a charter school at the corps’ headquarters on Orange Show Road two days a week, graduating with a high school degree. The other three days of the work week, they trim hedges, mow — whatever landscaping and related work is needed.

Earlier this month, the San Bernardino County Housing Authority contracted with the group to provide landscaping services for the public housing at Waterman Gardens, on the condition that participants are themselves residents of the complex.

“It’s good work,” said Cahlin Florence, 22. “If somebody trashes this place now — I don’t think I’d let them. That’s more work for me.”

That’s part of the philosophy behind the Urban Conservation Corps, Vega said.

“They own it, they get that responsibility, and they’re not going to let anything happen to it,” he said.

Key to the program’s success, Vega said, is that he understands the problems people in his program face. He knows their families, and their families know him.

“I’ve built that reputation,” he said. “And I know — look, in their world, looking somebody in the eye — normal eye contact — that will get you killed, mad-dogging. You need to know that. And you need to know why they’re doing it and how to have them stay like that when they need to, but also adopt the right behavior for the right circumstances.”

Many of the logistical details of the Urban Conservation Corps are handled by program director Sandra Bonilla, who compiled the spread sheet showing where program participants wound up — the military, fire departments, in some cases more modest successes like a warehouse job.

She said she joined up with Vega with a background in government and a graduate school education she thought told her everything she needed to do.

“But I kept trying things that didn’t work,” she said. “And so many times, I’d go to Bobby, and he’d say, ‘Here’s the problem. You can’t do that with these kids. Adapt it like this.’ And then it’d work.

“Bobby knows what they’re coming from. And he knows what they need.”

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Business digest: Sunday, Dec. 22 – Longview News

Turfgrass conference set Feb. 6 at Overton

OVERTON — The East Texas Turfgrass Conference is Feb. 6 at the Texas AM AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton.

“Our 2014 annual conference targets professional grounds and landscape managers for local school districts, city parks and recreation departments,” said Randy Reeves, Texas AM AgriLife Extension Service agent for Harrison County.

However, Reeves said, plenty of information will be presented that private homeowners will find interesting and useful.

Registration will begin at 8 a.m. and is $30 per person, payable at the door. Attendees will be eligible for five continuing education units toward the renewal of their Texas Department of Agriculture private pesticide applicator license.

“Be sure to bring your pesticide license or pesticide number with you to ensure proper CEU credit,” Reeves said. “Your driver’s license number alone will no longer serve.”

The formal program will begin at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m., with an all-you-can-eat catfish lunch, which will be included with registration.

Morning program topics include “Turf Weed ID and Pesticide Updates” by Casey Reynolds, AgriLife Extension state turfgrass specialist in College Station; and “Water Issues and Drought Management,” by Dotty Woodson, AgriLife Extension water specialist in Dallas.

The afternoon presentations will be “Pesticide Laws and Regulation Update,” by Mark Matocha, AgriLife Extension specialist for agriculture and environmental safety in College Station; and two demonstrations, “Pesticide Drift Demonstration,” by Shane Colston, business manager and certified crop adviser with Winfield Solutions in Tyler; and a sprayer calibration demonstration.

In addition, attendees will have the opportunity to visit with industry sponsors and view their exhibits.

For information, contact Reeves at (903) 935-8413 or .

SFA professor lauded for mentoring

NACOGDOCHES – R. Tyler Spradley, assistant professor of communication studies at Stephen F. Austin State University, has received an endowed professorship established to reward faculty members who are excellent teachers and serve as mentors to their students.

The Jim Towns Mentoring Professorship recognizes professors who instill, foster and promote a mentoring culture at SFA.

Spradley joined the faculty of SFA’s College of Liberal and Applied Arts in 2002. He has taught graduate and undergraduate classes

Spradley holds a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and a master’s degree in communication from SFA. He also earned a master’s degree in lay ministry from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in communication from Texas AM University.

AAON Coil garners state, local awards

AAON Coil Products in Longview, a subsidiary of AAON, a leading manufacturer of heating and cooling products, has earned two awards.

The company received the Employer Award of Excellence for the Workforce Solutions East Texas at the Texas Workforce Commission’s annual conference Dec. 4-6 in San Antonio.

The award honors employers who are actively involved with their local workforce board and have made a positive impact on employers, workers and the community.

In addition, the company has been selected as the 2013 Manufacturer of the Year by the Longview Chamber of Commerce. The award will be presented Jan. 14 at the Longview Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet.

AAON employs more than 300 employees at its Longview facility and is a top 15 employer for the city of Longview. AAON has been an active participant in the WorkKeys initiative for the East Texas workforce board, working with the board’s Longview Center and the Longview Economic Development Corp. to develop redesigned work flow processes.

“The partnerships between our employers and our local workforce boards are so important in continuing to develop a skilled, well-trained workforce in Texas,” said TWC Commissioner Hope Andrade.

AAON received the Manufacturer of the Year Award for its contribution to the local economy through job creation and corporate citizenship.

Trust president joins Longview bank

Paul Mason has joined the staff of Texas Bank and Trust as vice president and portfolio manager in the trust division, according to bank Chairman Rogers Pope.

Mason has more than eight years of experience in the investment management field, and most recently worked in Northern Trust’s Houston office as an associate portfolio manager.

In his role with Texas Bank and Trust, he will be responsible for managing existing portfolios for trust, retirement plan services and investment management accounts, as well as helping to develop new business for the division.

Mason holds a bachelor of business administration degree from Abilene Christian University. He and his wife Katie, along with their two sons, moved to Longview from The Woodlands.

Law firm associated joins trial advocates

J. Ryan Fowler, lead attorney for the law firm of Sloan, Bagley, Hatcher Perry’s Houston office, has been elected to the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Membership is by invitation only.

Fowler, a native Texan and a resident of The Woodlands, also was recognized among the Texas Rising Stars in 2012 and 2013. He earned a bachelor of business administration degree, with honors, from the University of Texas in 2004 and a doctor of jurisprudence degree, cum laude, from Baylor University’s School of Law in 2007.

Fowler is a member of American Association for Justice, Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Houston Trial Lawyers Association, Houston Young Lawyers Association, College of the State Bar of Texas and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum.

Fowler has also achieved certification by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in personal injury trial law.

The Sloan firm was established in 1980 in Longview and opened an office in Houston in 2010.

Water gardens owner earns certification

Keith Weaver, owner of Keith’s Water Gardens and Landscaping in Longview, has become a certified Aquascape contractor.

Weaver, who has been in the landscaping and mowing business for 23 years, started building water gardens nine years ago. He’s been working toward his certification for eight years, a process that involved building ponds using Aquascape products, attending seminars and other steps.

Two join staff of Tyler accounting firm

Two employees have joined the staff of Henry Peters, a certificated public accounting firm.

Denise Guanco, a certified tax accountant, joined the firm in December as a tax supervisor. She is a graduate of Texas AM University, where she completed her bachelor of business administration degree in accounting and finance in 2000 and her master of business administration degree in 2012.

During her eight years in public accounting, Guanco has worked with CPA firms in Houston and Dallas. She gained the majority of her experience while working with Stiefel, Lyles and Allen as a senior tax accountant.

Guanco left public accounting in 2007 and moved to industry accounting, where she was tax manager for Martin Resource Management for the past six years.

New staff associate Brendon Dane graduated from the University of North Texas in May with his bachelor’s degree in accounting. Brendon worked with the Dallas firm of Montgomery, Coscia, Greilich

Longview bank hires marketing manager

Casey Huntsinger has joined the staff of Texas Bank and Trust Co. as vice president and marketing research manager in the marketing division, according to bank Chairman Rogers Pope.

Huntsinger has worked as branch manager for Regions Bank and JP Morgan Chase Bank. In his role with Texas Bank and Trust, he will manage and analyze customer demographics and perform quantitative and qualitative analysis of such data as customer segmentation, retention, next best product and product/customer profitability. He will be responsible for monitoring the bank’s marketing performance, sales promotion strategies and promotional campaigns.

Originally from Seattle, Wash., Huntsinger holds a bachelor of science degree in business administration and marketing from Valley City State University.

U.S. rig count falls by 14 last week to 1,768

HOUSTON — Oilfield services company Baker Hughes Inc. said the number of rigs exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. fell by 14 this past week to 1,768.

The Houston company said in its weekly report Friday that 1,395 rigs were exploring for oil and 372 for gas. One was listed as miscellaneous. A year ago there were 1,774 active rigs.

Of the major oil- and gas-producing states, Louisiana and West Virginia gained two rigs and Pennsylvania gained one.

Colorado lost six rigs, Texas and Wyoming lost three, Alaska dropped by two, and California and North Dakota each fell by one. Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah were unchanged.

— Share your news: Send news of new hires, job changes, promotions, awards, training completed and other news to the Sunday Business Digest by 5 p.m. Wednesday. Submissions may be faxed to (903) 757-3742; emailed to newstip@news-; or mailed to: Business Section, Longview News-Journal, P.O. Box 1792, Longview, TX 75606. For information, call (903) 237-7744.

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Create a magical fairy garden

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314 West Market St.
Sandusky, OH 44870

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