Bethlehem Steel reaches out to Balto. Co. Council Politicians are invited to groundbreaking

March 29, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Predicting a new era of economic development at Sparrows Point, Bethlehem Steel Corp. executives are wooing Baltimore County Council members who have complained about being taken for granted by the county's largest private employer.

Division President Duane Dunham has invited all seven council members to the groundbreaking April 15 for Bethlehem's new $300 million cold-rolling mill and has offered them a tour of the sprawling steel factory.

More important, he has promised to keep council members informed about the plant's plans.

The moves might not appear dramatic, but they have eased frustrations among councilmen, peeved over an unfulfilled 11-year-old deal in which the county was to swap tax breaks for land.

The county provided millions of dollars in tax breaks but never received the six plots of surplus plant land, which included the former company fire station and 26 acres once targeted for a new fire training academy.

"They in general hold Baltimore County and the state hostage" because they are such a big employer, Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said.

"I guess they want to make sure the council continues to favorably consider their requests," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, referring to the company's friendly gestures.

Frustrations boiled over last month when Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, the Dundalk Democrat whose district includes the plant, suggested abandoning the county-run, but company-owned fire station. His comments came before a scheduled vote on a $112,175 contract for a new environmental study of several of the surplus sites.

DePazzo has complained the loudest about being ignored while the company benefits from tax breaks and publicly funded infrastructure repairs. But he now says he's satisfied.

"They're never going to have 30,000 to 40,000 jobs," DePazzo said, referring to postwar boom days at "the Point." But he said the new mill may mean a new industrial start -- even if its high-tech equipment requires fewer workers and means the work force may ultimately shrink by several hundred.

Company officials say the work force reduction will take place through attrition, not layoffs. But, they say, the new 800,000-square-foot mill could be a catalyst for attracting other businesses.

"We're not going to have any more [economic] home runs -- we've got to hit singles," DePazzo said. The new mill "is a single."

It was DePazzo's outburst that led indirectly to the reconciliation.

Concerned by the tensions, Robert L. Hannon, county economic development director, arranged for company executives to have dinner with the council.

Earlier this month, they sat down at an unusual, white-linen affair in the council's antique, paneled library in Towson's old courthouse.

The catered dinner seems to have done the trick.

"It makes me feel a lot better when he tells me that they spend over $800 million a year [on materials] and the payroll was $280 million," Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said after supping on beef stew in bread bowls, fresh fruit and sweets.

The plant's 15,000 retirees, many of whom live in Baltimore County, pull in another $140 million a year in retirement benefits and add to the plant's economic impact.

Dunham referred to the company's new cold-rolling mill as "Camden Yards East," an allusion to the economic stimulus he expects from the facility.

While overall employment at the plant continues to decline, the new mill and better business conditions mean Sparrows Point has a new lease on life, he told council members.

Renovations to the huge "L" blast furnace -- located within sight of the fire station -- and other new investments are also coming, Dunham said.

He noted that 1,200 people have been hired for new plant jobs over the past three years, after years of almost no hiring.

Plant human resources director Clifford W. Ishmael said that despite declining employment achieved through attrition, there have been no layoffs for more than four years.

Bethlehem Steel produces 3.5 million tons of steel annually with 5,100 workers, compared with 6 million tons a year produced by 30,000 workers in the mid-1960s. In the new mill, officials said, spotless white coats and specialized training will be the rule, not back-breaking manual labor.

As the company's former shipyard comes to life under new ownership, officials say Bethlehem Steel appears on the way to solving long-standing complaints about pollution on the 2,500-acre peninsula.

It signed a consent agreement with federal and state officials in February 1997 pledging a major cleanup. So far, the company is sticking to the agreement, said a federal Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman and Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment. That includes full payment of $3.5 million in fines assessed in 1992, Banks said.

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