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In Granite City, a company town gets back to business

In Granite City, a company town gets back to business


GRANITE CITY • About 20 times a day, a giant bucket carrying 200 tons of molten iron is shipped from one side of Granite City Works to the other and combined with scrap to produce new steel — something this plant stopped making for two years.

By October, when the second blast furnace restarts, the plant owned by Pittsburgh-based United States Steel will be fully operational and steel production will nearly double.

Shifts at the plant that has anchored this Metro East town for decades are already running 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Another 300 workers are expected to be hired to operate the second blast furnace, bringing employment at the plant back to about 1,500 people.

Petri Café, a 70-year-old institution just down the street, again is busy on Fridays filling catered lunches to deliver to the mill.

“They were down to practically nobody working,” said Kathy Petri, whose family has owned the business for 70 years. Her mother-in-law, Ruth Petri, 93, still owns it. “Yes, it has picked up.”

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel imports have buoyed the fortunes of domestic steel producers. In Granite City, which had been a big supplier for steel tubes used in the oil and gas industry, rising energy prices have also contributed to the decision in March to restart one of its blast furnaces.

The plant brings in iron by rail from the U.S. Steel-owned MinnTac mine in Minnesota, about an hour north of Duluth. It’s melted to liquid and combined with other ingredients in the mill’s blast furnace and shipped over to the other side of the campus, where the 2,400-degree molten iron is combined with scrap steel in a basic oxygen furnace to create new steel.

From there, it’s rolled into coils, flattened from about 9-inch slabs down to less than an inch, depending on what customers want. It can be finished at several other facilities at the plant before delivery.

With almost every one of the lines running, the effects in a town that has depended on the steel industry for much of its century-plus existence are being felt.

Laura Smith, co-owner of Holt Shoe Shop on Madison Avenue, says sales have picked up 20 to 30 percent compared with last year. The store sells a wide line of protective metatarsal boots required for work in the factory. Contractors repairing equipment and preparing the mill’s blast furnaces and other production facilities for restart have provided an influx of business.

“They won’t let them in the gate without these boots,” Smith said.

The Smiths bought Holt Shoe from the Holt family in 2014, about a year before the mill shut down in late 2015. When that happened, U.S. Steel ended its footwear contract with the store.

“It was really bad,” she said. “We reduced our inventory … did what we had to do to keep going.”

Smith hopes to win the mill contract back at some point. For now, though, she hopes the contractors restarting the second furnace keep business good.

“We’re enjoying it, and we just hope it stays steady,” she said.

Though the steel tariffs have been a boon for steel producers, economists warn that far more industries are steel buyers and that the higher price could hurt overall employment. In Poplar Bluff, for instance, the nation’s largest nail manufacturer has said it may close because of the higher cost of steel it had imported from Mexico. Already, it has said it will lay off about half of its 500-employee workforce by the end of July.

Steel comes in a variety of grades depending on the finished product, so switching suppliers is not always simple.

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