GRANITE CITY, Ill. – Grab a cup of coffee with a resident of Granite City and you will likely hear it said that the southern Illinois city was built around the local U.S. Steel plant, not the other way around.
It’s the locals’ way of conveying how heavily Granite City, just outside St. Louis, depends on the steel mill, both for the jobs and the sense of identity it provides. The relationship is similar to how Minnesota’s Iron Range depends on the iron ore industry — including the U.S. Steel plants there that will be sending taconite to the Granite City plant.
For more than 100 years, Granite City has defined itself as a hardworking mill town, a place where young people eager to cement a solid financial future without a college degree have to look no further than the dirt and iron and fire of the local steel plant, which stretches over 2 square miles. The opportunity afforded by the plant came to a halt at the end of 2015, when the plant idled production, laying off 2,000 people.
But the first blast furnace now has been restarted and U.S. Steel is filling 800 jobs at the mill, a result of the steep tariffs that President Donald Trump announced on imported steel and aluminum earlier this year. The Trump administration has in recent months imposed tariffs on goods from Canada, Mexico and China, and this month imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese imports. That country responded by levying tariffs of its own on American-made goods.
The trade war has spurred an outcry from most U.S. businesses. In Granite City, though — which voted narrowly for Trump in the 2016 election — the tariffs are helping bring back well-paying steel jobs and lifting its economy. But even as the community of 29,000 along the Mississippi River sees better days, some residents and business owners hold out hope that the city will find another economic engine to define itself by. What that will be, they don’t know yet.
Nearly half of the returning 800 U.S. Steel jobs will be filled with employees who were laid off in 2015 when the plant was idled, according to spokeswoman Meghan Cox, who wouldn’t disclose salary ranges for the jobs. But there’s new blood, too, with about 56 percent of those positions going to new hires.
Nearby businesses thrive
The restart is causing an influx of customers at Park Grill, which is adjacent to the plant and was hit hard after the 2015 layoffs. Some steelworkers eat multiple meals a day at the grill. Railroad workers, truck drivers and others who have jobs supporting the plant also stop in or place orders for burgers and barbecue sandwiches.
“I’m hoping that everything goes back to where it was, and I think it will,” Park Grill owner Mike DeBruce said. “I think it’s going to be stronger and better.”
DeBruce said he tries to ignore the “political noise” and focus on what the U.S. Steel jobs mean for his business and the town as a whole.
“These are things that should have been implemented a long time ago, and it would have never got this far,” he said of the tariffs. “They seem like they’re drastic changes. But something has to be done. So whether you like it or you don’t like it, it’s one of those things that for us, right now, is working.”
At the Kool Beanz Cafe, owner Victoria Arguelles is serving sandwiches, soup and coffee to a growing number of new mill employees as well as regulars.
“We really have the salt of the Earth — the people who have stuck around, they’re really good people,” said Arguelles, who is encouraged by the new and recalled workers that are coming in to her cafe, saying they bring an exciting new energy.
“We’re seeing new people come here, more people are having their meetings here and having interviews here; it’s really cool,” she said.
Despite the excitement, memories of the 2015 layoffs loom large, and the economic effects still linger.
The plant had been idled before, but never for so long, and never affecting as many workers. With so many people out of work, some local merchants closed their doors, leaving downtown peppered with abandoned buildings. Residents say crime increased, as did drug use. The line grew devastatingly long at the local food pantry.
There is trepidation about history repeating itself.
“With U.S. Steel, you don’t know what is going to happen,” DeBruce said. “Are they going to run a while and close again? The uncertainty of that is scary for everybody. You just kind of roll with it and hope things go good, because you have no choice.”
Some have returned to work at the plant with a promise to themselves to build up savings or pay off credit card bills they racked up while unemployed.
Others have opted to stay with jobs they found after being laid off by U.S. Steel.
Tony Zedolek, 56, is among those who went back to U.S. Steel after being laid off in late 2015. A bricklayer, Zedolek has worked at the plant since he was 20. He and his wife have three sons, and live in rural Grafton, 40 minutes away.
Layoff memories loom large
Besides unemployment, Zedolek relied on his wife’s income, odd jobs and credit cards to pay the bills. He now works a double shift, coming in at midnight and leaving at 4:15 p.m., which he says he doesn’t mind because it will put a dent in the debt he racked up.
Zedolek supports Trump, and said he thinks concerns that tariffs will drive up the prices on consumer products are overblown. Besides, higher prices would be a small price to pay to put Americans back to work, he said.
Zedolek was laid off for six months in 2008, and after the latest two-year stretch without work, he thinks he will forever be wary of when the next one could come.
“I’d be knocking on wood, if I can find it,” he joked. “It’s always in the back of my mind.”
Fear of losing his job again was one reason why Jason Glasper, 41, decided not to go back when he was offered a chance to return to the plant earlier this year. He works as a custodian at a high school, and says he enjoys the weekends off and the lower stress that comes with his current job. And while he’s making less now, in four or five years he expects to make as much as he did at the plant.
“It was a good job,” he said of the position at U.S. Steel. “You’re able to provide for your family. But I ain’t missing the beat.”
Even as Granite City residents applaud the company that brought back their jobs, many are eager to stretch the city beyond its reliance on the mill, which looms large both physically and economically.
Jeri Reuter is the daughter of a steelworker. Her father started at the mill when he was 17 and retired in his early 50s, around 2000. Reuter said that even two decades ago the mill was becoming less of an option for young Granite City kids.
“I think that if you have any kind of realistic expectation of the town’s trajectory, I think you have to be cautious,” she said.
Reuter, a mother of two, said she hopes that the town will eventually draw more retail, or other business options that can drive foot traffic and money into the town’s coffers, to ease a possible future blow from the mill closing again.
There are signs of hope. Construction on new loft-style apartments in the town’s vacant YMCA building, funded through federal tax credits and developed by St. Louis nonprofit Rise Community Development, is expected to start in the spring, Economic Development Director James Amos said. A local art scene is slowly taking root. And the U.S. Department of Commerce on Thursday announced a $2.27 million grant for America’s Central Port of Granite City to build a new rail spur and renovate two buildings for future industrial use.
Amos said the town will always be known for its industrial roots, but he sees big opportunities to capitalize on the look of Granite City’s downtown area, something he says other towns in the Metro East area of St. Louis can’t match.
“We’re just a really humble community and people don’t know all the great things that we have to offer,” said Kool Beanz’s Arguelles. “And I love it. I wanted to be part of the change. We don’t have the big companies looking at us, so it’s going to take the small, crazy people like me.”