Community, officials look to life after steel mill sale

February 21, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

It's been years since the owners of Dundalk's Costas Inn had to do little more than cash paychecks and ladle out the beef and gravy to attract the crowds.

But the North Point Boulevard restaurant and bar still counts on the hungry steelworkers from down the road. So, when general manager Nick Triantafilos heard yesterday that the U.S. Department of Justice had ordered the sale of Mittal Steel Co. NV's Sparrows Point plant, he was concerned.

"Our bread and butter is still the lunch crowd," said Nick Triantafilos, whose parents opened the restaurant in 1971. "We always have someone in here who's connected in some way or another with the plant."

Some elected officials and community leaders were optimistic that a forced sale of the steel plant would be good for the local economy, saying it could create an opportunity for a company with plans to invest more in improvements at the facility.

But given the plant's history, others, including Triantafilos, reacted with more caution. As they digested the possible implications, they wondered whether workers would be laid off and why Sparrows Point was chosen, after they'd been hearing for months about the possible of sale of Mittal's plant in West Virginia.

"This causes a lot of uncertainty," said state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., who has represented the Dundalk and Sparrows Point areas for the past four decades, and was among those surprised by the news.

He said he was hopeful that a serious buyer with a good reputation could be quickly identified. But given the decline over years in the number of jobs at the plant, and the loss of health insurance for Bethlehem Steel Corp. retirees, Stone said he was worried it wouldn't be the international steel giant that would pay the price if there were any negative effects from the sale.

"It seems that it's always the people who suffer," said Stone. "It's not fair."

Having survived the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel and the rapid succession of new owners, the workforce and, to some extent, the community at large has developed a thicker skin, said Bill Barry, director of Labor Studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk campus.

"The people down there have had to toughen up," he said.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. was among those with an upbeat reaction yesterday.

"The Justice Department is confirming our belief in the viability of the steel industry in eastern Baltimore County," Smith said.

"The long-term goal of the Department of Justice is to create competition," Smith said, adding that the department would have made Mittal divest itself of another facility if it didn't think that Sparrows Point offered the best chance to give Mittal more competition within the tin plate market.

The steel plant employs about 2,400 workers, and the county's Department of Economic Development estimates an additional 7,000 to 8,000 workers are employed by companies associated with the plant in some form - from trucking services to local sandwich shops.

Even with 10,000 jobs reliant on the steel plant, it's a fraction of the Sparrows Point workforce during the heyday of Bethlehem Steel when more than 30,000 workers made a living there.

Back then, when the plant changed shifts it looked like a "stadium was letting out," said Triantafilos.

When the company laid off workers, businesses including Costas Inn were forced to find new ways to attract customers.

Costas Inn, still owned by Triantafilos' parents, gained a reputation for its steamed crabs and crab cakes. They expanded the menu, started a catering business on the side and even began selling their seasoning blends on the Internet and in some supermarkets.

"We've diversified as much as we have, in part, because of Bethlehem Steel," Triantafilos said.

They still cash workers' paychecks, pour cold draft beer and serve beef and gravy, he said.

"We still need people to be coming into this area," said Triantafilos. "With all the trucking companies and subcontractors doing work at the plant, there's still traffic here."

Carolyn Jones, president of the Greater Dundalk Alliance, an umbrella group of community organizations in the area, said no one wants to see the workers lose jobs. But, she said, residents have also been fighting to have the peninsula cleaned up from industrial use.

John Olszewski Sr., the Baltimore County councilman who represents the Dundalk and Sparrows Point areas, said he was "assured" during a meeting with Mittal executives and the president of the local steelworkers union last year that if the Sparrows Point plant were sold, workers would not be required to lose their jobs.

But the Dundalk Democrat said he has also heard from community groups that are interested in looking at the future of Sparrows Point and how the area could be redeveloped if the U.S. steel industry could no longer support the plant there.

"At some point," he said, "you need to look at the long-range goals of the area."

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