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St. Louis Post-Dispatch
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Katie Kull and Austin Huguelet

Illinois town braces for future without steel plant

GRANITE CITY, Illinois — News got around quickly in this town across the Mississippi from St. Louis: The steel mill's death knell was sounding again, and this time, the end might really be near.

At the Daylight Donuts down the street from the plant, a group of regulars relayed what they knew. One man said the city would suffer if the plant were to close. Another said there was still time for the deal to fail. One woman said she was hopeful her husband would be one of the few hundred plant employees to keep his job under a new operator.

Meanwhile, Michael DeBruce, who owns the Park Grill café several blocks away, hustled to deliver orders to a steady crowd in packed booths. The plant's closure was still at top of mind, he said. He'd heard from friends about plans to shut down most of the line, putting roughly 1,000 people out of work. It'd ripple through the community, he said, to businesses like his and all the area contractors who provide services to the mill.

"It's certainly not good," he said.

Steel has anchored Granite City since its founding in 1896. The mill, officially called Granite City Works, has provided a constant and common language for the town of roughly 28,000 people. Even residents who have never worked a day at the plant know the intricacies of steelmaking. Most have family members or friends who work there.

It hasn't always been smooth sailing. Over the years, the furnaces have gone dark as demand shifted or businesses changed. People have been laid off. Local businesses suffered.

Then came Wednesday, when U.S. Steel Corp. announced it had reached a preliminary deal with Chicago-based SunCoke Energy to repurpose blast furnaces, which would effectively shut down most of the operation and eliminate 950 jobs in two years. If the deal goes through, about 400 remaining employees would produce pig iron ingots, the building-blocks for steel, and 100 others would continue to finish existing steel coils, the local United Steelworkers union president said.

It would be a huge blow to the entire region, said Granite City Mayor Mike Parkinson. Many of the people who work at the plant commute from surrounding towns, and the wages support hundreds of families, he said.

The closure would also change the city's identity. Officials are planning several improvements, including an entertainment center and concert venue. They had planned on calling it "The Mill."

"But if this goes through, if the mill's not going to be there, we certainly want to re-evaluate that," Parkinson said.

Residents and workers were reluctant to talk on Wednesday about the future of the plant and the city. They've been through this all before, some said, and the plant ended up reopening.

"Until they lock the doors, I don't believe it," said one man as he headed to work.

"It's too early to say," said Lenny Chambers, 53, as he walked from the plant to his car.

Others said this time felt different. Workers shook their heads coming in and out of the plant on Wednesday afternoon. They used words like "horrible" and "screwed" to describe their predicament.

Eddie Holik, 44, said he planned to work as long as he could then figure out something else if necessary.

"This is permanent," he said.

At Ken's Lounge, a bar across the street from the plant's hulking blue walls, owner Robin Will said she wasn't ready to panic just yet.

Still, her mind immediately went to all the small businesses in the community that depend on mill workers and their families.

"There will be an impact no matter what," she said. "We'll just have to see."

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