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Economy: Steelworkers say there is still life (and jobs) in Georgetown mill

By Charles Swenson

Talk about reopening the steel mill in Georgetown under a new owner has raised hopes among former steelworkers who see a future in high paying jobs with benefits at a time when others see a chance to redevelop the city’s waterfront.

Executives from ArcelorMittal told local officials in a meeting last week that there are already prospective buyers for the mill. Even though the steelmaker would entertain offers from someone interested in redeveloping the site, those prospects have a head start in the process, said Paul Gardner, the city administrator.

The mill has been idle since 2015. Last year, a panel from the Urban Land Institute came up with a proposal to replace the city’s industrial waterfront with a mixed-use development that would integrate the historic downtown with more diverse businesses and public facilities. City and Georgetown County officials, partners in the redevelopment effort, held a series of meetings over the last week to get public comment on the concept. Over 200 people attended a session Monday at the Howard Auditorium, two blocks west of the steel mill. “This is all about exchanging different points of view,” Gardner told the audience. “The hard part is about building a consensus within the community.”

Taking him at his word, one speaker during a question-and-answer session asked people to stand if they supported keeping the steel mill. About two-thirds of them rose to their feet.

“There’s life left in that steel mill,” said Ed Green, a former steelworker. “You sound like steel is dead.”

Ray Poston, a steelworker for 25 years, said he’d go back tomorrow if the mill reopened. The mill has closed five times in 15 years. Each time it reopened there were fewer workers. But Poston and other steelworkers say that is misleading. The mill also used contract employees, and part of the reduction was because employees were asked to take on two or three jobs, they said.

After a presentation about the ULI plan, members of the audience gathered around 40 tables to formulate questions. Each table got to ask one question. Many wanted to know what kind of jobs the city envisions in the redevelopment. Michelle LaRocco drew applause when she asked if they would be just service industry jobs.

Gardner said the redeveloped waterfront is “a space to create jobs that are sustainable jobs.” He noted that in Georgetown’s West End, in the shadow of the steel and paper mills, unemployment is 20 percent. That prompted Fred Williams, an area resident, to ask how the city could support a 20-year development plan over the reopening of the steel mill.

The mill closing isn’t what caused the unemployment rate. “We have neglected that community,” Gardner said.

Poston asked how the city expected to redevelop 150 acres on the waterfront when it couldn’t promote redevelopment of the 700 block of Front Street where seven buildings were destroyed by fire in 2013. The Front Street property is in private hands and won’t be rebuilt until the owners can recoup their investment from rentals, Gardner said.

Peg Howell, a North Litchfield resident, also drew applause when she said she was the daughter of a steelworker. “However, my dad didn’t want me to work in his steel mill,” she said. Howell suggested the redevelopment effort get input from young people, since it’s their future at stake.

One member of the millennial generation was Olivia Shaw, 22, who comes from a steelworking family. She wanted to know why the city would give up “350 confirmed jobs” at the mill for an unknown number of future jobs.

Mayor Jack Scoville questioned whether those jobs were confirmed since ArcelorMittal executives said last week there is no sales contract for the mill. Even with a contract, “don’t assume there’s going to be some magical increase in jobs in the next week or so,” he said.

Although officials with the steelworkers union say there have been talks about a work contract, Scoville said, those are just part of the preliminaries for potential buyers. “We have a potential buyer who likes the ULI concept,” he said.

The city is moving forward with a rezoning of the steel mill from heavy industrial to light industrial. Even with a change, the mill would be able to reopen in the near term. Scoville said his concern is that the site will be sold to a company that will only start production if the U.S. raises tariffs on imported steel, something proposed by President Trump.

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