LTV Steel’s once-mighty Aliquippa Works, which hugs the Ohio River for seven miles west of Pittsburgh, finally is being torn down, yard by rusty yard, and union boss Rich Vallecorsa is shedding no tears.
About 8,000 workers once toiled at the plant, turning limestone, iron ore and coal into America’s pipe, wire and tin plate. Only about 900 workers remain in two small mills that have managed to prove their profitability in the fickle 1980s.
But Vallecorsa, president of United Steelworkers Local 1211, won’t fight for the old plant.
“Why raise people’s hopes? As long as the mill is standing there, rotting away, there’s a false sense of hope it is going to start again,” he said.
Along the 80-mile-long steel valley of the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, closed plants are being demolished in preparation for their metamorphosis as industrial parks, high-tech centers and even amusement parks.
From Chicago to Buffalo, large manufacturing plants are undergoing similar transformations.
‘Greening of the Valley’
“It’s like the greening of the valley,” said Steve Barrouk, director of the Allegheny County Industrial Development Authority. “We’re changing from gray to green, essentially. We’re looking at open space, clean, light industrial development and some heavier activity.”
From 1979 to 1987 more than 67,000 jobs in basic steel and 63,000 jobs in heavy manufacturing were lost in the Pittsburgh area. Companies closed within days, sometimes overnight, leaving behind eerie, ghost town-like plants where coats still hung on hooks and lunch boxes waited to be opened.
While social service agencies tried to help the displaced workers, planners turned their attention to the shuttered plants themselves.
In particular, they looked at mills in the Monongahela Valley south of Pittsburgh, the cradle of America’s steel industry. For psychological and economic reasons, they believed the change had to begin there or the valley, so dependent on steel for so many decades, would wither.
“Around the end of the ‘70s and the early ‘80s, we were experiencing a major shutdown every week,” Barrouk said. “The magnitude was such that it was almost impossible to respond in any way you thought was adequate.
“There were a lot of major facilities in private, corporate hands, and the companies were not interested in being landlords.”
Public and private entrepreneurs with a vision stepped in. Although there’s no general, long-term plan for the region, a quiet renaissance in real estate has emerged. Some examples:
- Just 6 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, USX Corp.'s century-old Homestead Works is being turned into a new alloy of light manufacturing plants, offices and a riverfront playground with water slides, a boardwalk and a sandy beach.
- Within five minutes of downtown Pittsburgh, the former J&L; Steel Corp.'s Hazelwood plant is becoming the city’s version of California’s Silicon Valley. Bulldozers have cleared the way for the Pittsburgh Technology Center, a site for developing robots, computer programs and research into biotechnology.
- In Glassport, about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the former Copperweld Corp. wire manufacturing plant is the home of 14 companies producing windows, ball bearings, steel rods and futuristic airbuses.
- In neighboring McKeesport and Duquesne, USX Corp. last year turned its National and Duquesne works over to Barrouk’s agency in what is believed to be the nation’s largest transfer of industrial property to local governmental agencies for redevelopment.
- In a region known as the “electric valley,” Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s East Pittsburgh Works, which built the equipment used to bring affordable electricity to many of America’s cities, is being turned into an urban industrial park.
At an international conference on urban renewal, a team of experts led by Britain’s Prince Charles descended upon the valley last year to examine ways to revitalize the area. In general, their ideas validated what some private and public developers already had planned or begun.
Not everyone has been receptive.
Those who believe basic steel can bounce back say that demolishing plants like Homestead is akin to hammering the last nail in the coffin of the nation’s old-fashioned, integrated mills and the communities that became dependent on them.
“In many cases, these facilities were horrendously managed,” said Bob Erickson of the Steel Valley Authority, which is trying to maintain steel making in the Mon Valley.
With leaner, smaller operations that can respond more quickly to changes in the market, some doomed plants still could be producing steel profitably, Erickson said. In some cases, steel is even being manufactured on a limited scale at plants that are being demolished, such as Aliquippa.
Steel No Longer Feasible
Others, however, point to study after study that have determined that steel making at many of the facilities is no longer feasible. The future for the sites, they say, is to offer a more diverse mix of goods and services.
“We’re going to get jobs back,” Barrouk said. “But instead of one manufacturer that has a club of influence on a community, we’re talking about dozens of manufacturers.”
Erickson questions whether such sites are truly marketable.
“They’re unattractive,” he said. “They have high taxes, poor access, bad public service and bad school systems. The locations aren’t conducive to light industry or high technology without a lot of work being done.”
Kelly Park, whose company is developing the Homestead Works, acknowledges that it will take millions of dollars to clean the sites of pollutants and build roads, bridges and sewer and water lines. But he said once the stage is set, there will be plenty of interested actors.
“You take 100 acres in the Mon Valley and put in sewer and water lines and it will fill up,” said Park, vice president of the Cleveland-based Park Corp.
For the last year, giant shears have been nibbling away at Andrew Carnegie’s citadel of steel and smoke in Homestead, slowly demolishing the plant that once employed 15,000 and supplied massive amounts of armor plate in World War II.
The Park Corp., which liquidates and recycles industrial property, bought most of the 3 1/2-mile-long plant from USX for more than $2.75 million. Kennywood Park, an amusement park, bought the rest.
“If this development happens as we anticipate, I can imagine streets here with names like Open Hearth Avenue,” Park said. “This is going to be a real showplace, with heavy and light manufacturing and some commercial and recreational ventures.”
A brick building that was the site of the bloody 1892 labor dispute pitting Carnegie’s Pinkerton guards against striking steelworkers--a battle that set the unionization of steel workers back 50 years--may be preserved as a historic landmark.
A community-based credit union plans to construct a $1-million building on a former parking lot.
Park also may restart two mills within the plant, and a local investment group is trying to buy part of the plant and produce steel for use in farm equipment, cars and major appliances.
At one end of the site, bulldozers are clearing brush and debris and regrading land for the water park, scheduled to open this July.
Kennywood President Carl Hughes said the park is the brainchild of an associate who felt that Pittsburgh, nearly 400 miles from the ocean, needed a beach.
Not only was the Homestead property available, but it has a gentle slope and offers a view across the river of a densely wooded hillside.
“I think people are going to be astounded when they see this,” Hughes said. “It’s such a sylvan setting. It’s almost impossible to imagine it’s an old steel mill.”
Hughes said the park will feature 18 water slides, a boardwalk, a wading pool and a channel for floaters--this in the midst of a rough-and-tumble town known more for its food banks and soup kitchens than recreation.
If it is successful, he plans to build a large marina and floating restaurant.
A few miles upstream, Glassport’s fortunes sank with heavy manufacturing. And in the mid-'80s, when the county bought Copperweld’s vacant Glassport plant, the economic climate for start-up companies didn’t appear too bright.
“When we walked through the plant, it was the eeriest feeling because the papers were still on the desks, jackets were still hung on hooks. Lunch boxes weren’t even opened,” Barrouk said. “People were given one-day notice when they left that place. It was like a neutron bomb. It was just like walking through a ghost town.”
Using public funds, the county and an incubator group bought the mile-long facility in 1984 for $600,000 and spent $2.5 million to renovate it.
Officials hoped they could find tenants within five years. It took less than two.
The site houses 13 companies employing about 200 people, most of whom were hired locally, and the county is considering buying adjacent property.
The activity has pumped some life into Glassport itself, said Ron Stuart, who manages the facility.
“Where the restaurants were closed before, people now have lunch. Rite-Aid is putting in a brand new drugstore down the street--the first new building Glassport has seen since Hitler was a corporal,” he said.
Heady with Glassport’s success, the county last November bought two landmark steel mills--USX Corp.'s National Works in McKeesport and its sister plant, the Duquesne Works, across the river.
The 360-acre package cost the county $3.6 million, which won’t be paid until the land is redeveloped and sold.
Barrouk estimates that the cost of redevelopment could reach $40 million.
In Pittsburgh, the Jones & Laughlin steel mill--once a symbol of the city’s grimy past--is perhaps one of the best examples of the city’s clean, new future.
In 1983, the city and county bought 52 acres for $4 million and, in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University, are redeveloping it to make room for the Pittsburgh Technology Center, a high-tech industrial park.
A master plan adopted last year calls for each university to develop a portion within six to seven years.
“We took a calculated gamble,” said Evans Stoddard of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Stoddard said the high cost of developing the land--more than $500,000 an acre--necessitated public financing.
“There’s no private developer in the world that’s going to do that,” he said. “The only way that can be done is with substantial subsidy.”
Stoddard is convinced that such ventures are necessary for areas such as Pittsburgh and the Mon Valley to prosper into the next century.
“There’s a sense of urgency on everyone’s part that we have to get started with this economic transformation and prepare for the next century,” he said. “We can’t look back.”