Metro-East News

Granite City business owner: ‘If it closes for good, it will devastate this town’

Business and community leaders in Granite City reacted Wednesday with cautious optimism to the news of the temporary closure of the U.S. Steel plant, idling 2,080 workers.

The downtown district of Granite City has seen something of a renaissance in recent years, with restaurants and shops opening in a downtown that had been largely closed and boarded up for decades. Now there is a movie theater, art gallery, pizzeria, steakhouse, coffeeshop, bookstore, T-shirt shop and other businesses. The city’s downtown library has been completely renovated, and a farmer’s market with regular artisan festivals has brought even more people back to downtown.

“This is a steel mill town, and it’s provided a good living for a lot of people,” said Tony Aiello of Aiello’s Pizzeria in downtown Granite City. “If they bring people back, it will be OK. If it closes for good, it will devastate this town. I don’t know how many (workers) live here in Granite City, but even the ones who don’t live here spend money here. … It will hit this town hard.”

Aiello said he was one of the first to open up, just as the movie theater opened four years ago. He was a long-time steelworker who was part of the last temporary closure at U.S. Steel, formerly Granite City Steel, and retired two years after opening his pizzeria.

“Back then I was down here by myself,” Aiello said. But being located across from the movie theater was helpful; people came in for a pizza dinner before the show, he said. Since then, more businesses — even more restaurants — bring more people to downtown, and more foot traffic means more pizza.

His business model has been largely aimed at lower-income families anyway, he said — many of his customers may make $35,000 a year with both parents working full-time. “I want people to be able to come out and eat, whatever their circumstances,” he said.

But movies and restaurant dinners are luxuries, he said, and luxuries are the first things to go when a family member has been laid off.

Books are also considered a luxury item, which definitely concerns Bruce Campbell, owner of BSR Books.

“This can’t be good,” Campbell said. “We have customers who work at the plant; there are families of employees who read and buy books. If their primary income source goes away, that’s less money for the family budget. Books are kind of a luxury, and our prices are low, but it makes things tighter.”

Todd Angle has a different perspective: his floral and décor business, Kinderhook Krafts, has only been open for one month. Business has been good for the first month, and orders are coming in. So the news of the plant’s closure is somewhat disheartening.

“It’s a little bit scary for all of us,” Angle said.

Wednesday morning was Angle’s first meeting of a local business group, and the news of the steel plant’s closure had just hit. Some of the business owners present were also steel mill employees, and some of them were literally weeping, he said.

“It wasn’t really a pleasant meeting this morning,” he said. “But the general consensus was that we’ve survived this before, and we made it through.”

Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer said they weren’t prepared for the closure, but that U.S. Steel has assured him the closure is temporary.

“First we will reach out to the workers and their families, then we will deal with the rest,” Hagnauer said. “We will be there for them, and will do whatever is within our means to soften the blow.”

Hagnauer said the city would work with food pantries and charities to ensure services are available, and to bring in help for families to manage their finances and weather the furlough.

“If there is any good news, it’s that this isn’t happening in a total recession; this is a steel (industry) thing,” Hagnauer said. He said that there will be other opportunities for the workers to get jobs in the area.

“I’m an optimistic person, and I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Hagnauer said. “Hopefully the impact to these workers is short-lived.”

Madison County Chairman Alan Dunstan called the closure “a devastating blow to thousands of families.” He said he was hopeful that the closure could be averted entirely, or at least made temporary.

“The modernization of the steel plant over recent years, along with the exceptionally skilled workforce, has maintained the plant’s competitiveness,” Dunstan said. “The steel plant in Granite City has been in operation since 1878, and we want to do whatever possible to keep it in operation for many years to come.”

Dunstan said Madison County is working with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for a “rapid response team” to assist furloughed workers with programs and services. He said they are also in contact with the metro-east’s congressmen to lobby on behalf of the steel industry.

But Vicki Arguelles, who owns the Kool Beanz coffeehouse downtown, said she is “very hopeful” because the city has diversified its economic base with new and different businesses in recent years. Coordinator of the Granite City Business Foundry, a cooperative of Granite City businesses, Arguelles said the city’s recent focus on developing and supporting small businesses makes them better prepared to weather a temporary or permanent shutdown of the plant than they were in decades past.

“In my lifetime, this has happened a few times — and it was so devastating in the 1980s,” Arguelles said. “Our community is resilient now. We’re hardworking, and everyone will come together.”

Campbell said he remains cautiously optimistic: both his bookstore and the city-operated movie theater opened during the last closure, when U.S. Steel was closed for several months in 2009. The plant reopened with skeleton crews, and grew back to more than 2,000 employees again.

He is hopeful that the downtown revival will continue, regardless of the steel plant’s future. It might be impacted or slowed, he said, but it will continue.

“Granite City is pretty resilient,” Campbell said. “We’ve survived this before, and we’re still here.”