Illinois Town Tries To Show It Is More Than Just Steel Residents of Granite City, Ill., are celebrating the new tariffs on imported steel, which are jump-starting the local economy. But they also worry about being too dependent on that steel mill.
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Illinois Town Tries To Show It Is More Than Just Steel

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Illinois Town Tries To Show It Is More Than Just Steel

Illinois Town Tries To Show It Is More Than Just Steel

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Workers in traditional steel towns across the country are rejoicing over President Trump's steep tariffs on imported steel that go into effect tomorrow. Already, U.S. Steel is calling back 500 laid-off workers to restart one of its two idled blast furnaces at a mill in Granite City, Ill. That's the city's largest employer. And despite some success diversifying, its fortunes still largely rise and fall with those of the steel industry. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: You can't really tell when standing in this enormous park surrounded by stately brick homes, but a steel mill wasn't exactly built here inside the city. It was actually the other way around.

JAMES AMOS: Our community here - Granite City - it was originally designed as a planned community, much like Pullman in Chicago was kind of famous for being.

SCHAPER: Granite City's economic development director, James Amos.

AMOS: This community continued to be built around, specifically, the steel mill.

SCHAPER: For more than a century, this city across the Mississippi from St. Louis has been known as a steel town. And no one knows that better than Delmar Farless who is more than a century old.

DELMAR FARLESS: I'm almost six months passed. My birthday was in September.

SCHAPER: Farless has lived here since 1924. He's eating lunch with some younger friends, who are in their 60s, at a local cafe. Like many in this town of 29,000, he worked in the town's signature mill for a time. It was then called Granite City Steel.

FARLESS: If it weren't for Granite City Steel, people wouldn't have came here. That was the main place, boy, when I was a kid.

SCHAPER: At its peak in the 1970s, the mill employed more than 4,500 people. There were still about 2,000 working there in December of 2015 when U.S. Steel laid off all but a few hundred workers. The ripple effect hit this community hard, hurting suppliers and machine shops that work with the mill as well as those running the trucks, trains and barges that haul materials to and from the mill. James Amos says there are more than 40 businesses here that are part of what is called the heavy metals industrial cluster.

AMOS: And so all of these businesses are integrated together. They work together in kind of a symbiotic way, but U.S. Steel's production facility is by far the largest of them.

SCHAPER: Amos says U.S. Steel's impact on Granite City's economy is huge, but...

AMOS: Granite City does not live and die on one steel mill. We're a bigger town than that, and there are other thriving jobs within our community.

SCHAPER: Larry Petri certainly feels it when there are layoffs at the mill. He runs Petri Cafe which his parents opened 71 years ago just down the street from the gigantic steel mill. And the ebb and flow there has always affected the cafe's fortunes, but Petri has weathered many steel industry downturns over the years because he says U.S. Steel isn't the only game in town.

LARRY PETRI: Well, we have another mill, American Steel, down there. We have the hospital. We have other smaller business that seen the effect of being shut down - the mill shut down, but they survived.

LAURA SMITH: Along that wall over there, that's the metatarsals. And everything...

SCHAPER: Among those survivors is Laura Smith who, with her husband, owns Holt's Shoe Shop which specializes in industrial work boots.

SMITH: It has a steel toe and this plate that goes on top of it. So if they drop something on it, it doesn't break their foot.

SCHAPER: These metatarsal boots are required for anyone working inside the steel mill, and it's a big part of the Smith's business.

SMITH: When they shut down, we went down about 28 percent.

SCHAPER: So Holt's shoes has survived by catering to customers who work in other less prominent industries, like the area's rail yards, a major port on the Mississippi, food and beverage processing plants, healthcare and other factories. Economic development director, James Amos, insists that Granite City would survive without U.S. Steel, but he concedes that one of the problems attracting new businesses is the perception that the mammoth mill is all the city has to offer.

AMOS: If people hear that it is not in business, or it's on a partial shutdown or whatever, they're just not as inclined to invest in our community. They're more inclined to take those dollars and go somewhere else.

SCHAPER: Amos and others here in Granite City say the town still needs to prove to investors that this town has more to offer than just steel. That includes a strong workforce and access to river, rail and highway transportation networks - the same things that initially led planners to wrap this city around a steel mill in the first place well over a century ago. David Schaper, NPR News, Granite City, Ill.

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