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In this small steel town, Trump's tariffs have been met with a sigh of relief

In this small steel town, Trump's tariffs have been met with a sigh of relief
Park Grill owner Michael DeBruce works at his Granite City, Ill., restaurant on June 28. When a nearby steel mill was idled in 2015, DeBruce says, his business suffered. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Grab a cup of coffee with a resident of Granite City and you’ll probably 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.

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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.

But 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.

Now the first blast furnace has been restarted, and U.S. Steel is filling 800 jobs at the mill, a result of the steep tariffs that President Trump announced on imported steel and aluminum this year. The Trump administration has in recent months imposed tariffs on goods from Canada, Mexico and China, and Friday 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.

A blast furnace melts iron ore at Granite City Works in Granite City, Ill.
A blast furnace melts iron ore at Granite City Works in Granite City, Ill. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

But in Granite City, which voted narrowly for Trump in the 2016 election, the tariffs are helping bring back well-paying steel jobs and lifting its economy. Even as the community of 29,000 along the Mississippi River sees better days, though, some residents and business owners hold out hope that the city will find another economic engine by which to define itself.

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, said spokeswoman Meghan Cox, who wouldn’t disclose salary ranges for the jobs. But there’s new blood, too, with about 56% of those positions going to new hires.

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.”

Owner Victoria Arguelles at the Kool Beanz Cafe in Granite City, Ill.
Owner Victoria Arguelles at the Kool Beanz Cafe in Granite City, Ill. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

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’s encouraged by the new and recalled workers that are coming in to her cafe, saying they bring an exciting 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.

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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.

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, says 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 is expected to start next spring, a local art scene is slowly taking root and the U.S. Department of Commerce recently 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.

James Amos, the city’s economic director, 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 Greater 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.”

Bomkamp writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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