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[September 18, 2008]
Steelworkers, politicians -- state and local -- are credited with making Ludlum mill happen
(The Valley News-Dispatch Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sep. 18--Anyone worried about Allegheny Ludlum Corp. leaving the Alle-Kiski Valley in the foreseeable future will have to find something else to fret about.
Ludlum's parent company, Allegheny Technologies Inc., announced Wednesday that Ludlum's Brackenridge Works will be the site of its planned billion dollar, state-of-the-art hot strip mill.
It means the company will continue to be anchored in the Valley where the specialty steel maker was founded.
"Basically, Brackenridge is going to be the centerpiece of Allegheny Ludlum for decades to come," said Walt Hill, president of United Steelworkers Local 1196, which represents 1,180 workers at the plant. 'We knew that this was a major turning point in this company, and we had to make it happen here."
Allegheny Ludlum has been the Alle-Kiski Valley's largest employer for several generations. When union steelworkers had prolonged strikes in the past, the effects on the local economy were noticeable.
So when ATI officials began talking about building a new mill and mentioned Midland, Beaver County, and an unnamed site in Kentucky as potential locations, there was considerable concern among union and community officials.
"What happens if they don't put in Brackenridge?" Brackenridge Mayor Jeff Cowan asked rhetorically. "The (current) strip mill probably goes away in a few years, and then there's may be 100 jobs here. But, what happens to the plants in Bagdad and Vandergrift? It impacts everyone up and down the Valley."
"This is huge statewide because what we have done is ensure that Allegheny Ludlum will keep 3,000 union jobs in the state of Pennsylvania," said state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, whose district includes Harrison, where nearly all of the Brackenridge Works is located.
"There would be a lot of homes up for sale in Sarver if Allegheny Ludlum had pulled out of here," said George Conroy, Harrison Township commissioners' chairman.
He was referring to the fact that mill workers are spread throughout the Valley. Many live in newer homes in southern Butler County that they were able to afford through union wages earned at the mill -- wages that other industries find hard to match.
Hill said the hourly wage range for union workers at the plant run from a low of $19.68 to a high of $23.50.
Making room for more mill
Although it is referred to as the Brackenridge Works, nearly all of the mill property lies within Harrison. Still, one of the key decisions to clear the way for the new hot strip mill had to be made by Brackenridge Council.
Mile Lock Lane, a major artery abutting the mill where the new facility will be built, initially was supposed to be closed for three years to aid construction. Later, Ludlum said it needed to permanently occupy half the street in order to get the new facility to fit. Last week, Brackenridge Council agreed to do that and it will finalize the change Sept. 29.
"I have to give the Brackenridge officials a lot of credit," Conroy said. "Sometimes, a lot of government officials have tunnel vision, but the Brackenridge officials didn't."
"It became a situation where what is best for everybody has to be weighed against the negatives for Brackenridge, itself," Mayor Cowan said. "I personally felt a responsibility to this entire area.
"But the bottom line was that we really felt that this was the opportunity to preserve a lot of jobs -- a lot of stability in the area."
State helped the cause
The state officials pitched in by passing legislation in July 2007 to allow the company to negotiate electrical power contracts that will save on operating costs.
Two months ago the legislators followed up by extending the Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ), which provide major tax incentives for developers and were set to expire in two years.
Dermody wrote the electrical power bill and also did extensive work on the KOZ legislation. He said getting the bills through was a cooperative effort by the region's entire legislative delegation including state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City and state Sens. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and Sean Logan, D-Monroeville.
"Working together, this is a great victory for the Allegheny Valley," Dermody said. "We all worked together. The communities, the school district, the county -- they all did a great job in making the KOZ work."
Conroy said the power legislation was a particular concern because of the huge amount of electricity the mill consumes. Dermody also said that Kentucky officials promised to practically give electrical power to Ludlum at no cost as a lure.
At a meeting in November 2005, when Ludlum first voiced its desire to build a new mill, Conroy said the outlook was bleak.
"It sounded like Ludlum was going to be out of here because of the new electricity rates," Conroy said. "At that time, they said they couldn't live with that."
"We had to come up with a plan that didn't give away the store," Dermody said, "and all they were asking for was the ability to negotiate with the power companies."
The tax break
The KOZ legislation was important because Ludlum's Midland property was already part of one, giving it an advantage.
It was an advantage that at least one Beaver County politician was willing to exploit to his district's advantage, as Conroy recalled from that 2005 meeting. He said that did not go over well with at least one member of the Alle-Kiski delegation.
"Sean Logan hit the roof when he heard that (state Rep.) Mike Veon was trying to lure the mill to Midland," Conroy said.
"I was just passionate about our area," Logan said."I sensed some politics at that point, and I am not much for taking tax dollars and then shifting them from one place to another in Pennsylvania."
Logan said people often focus on new job creation and forget the importance of keeping what they have.
"This is job retention at its finest," he said.
"There was talk of Midland, there was talk of the state of Kentucky, but we pushed real hard for Brackenridge and it made sense for (Ludlum)," Pyle said. "There was a little give-and-take with Midland for a while, but we got what we needed."
"There's a lot to work with in terms of the existing plant, the existing work force," Ferlo said. "We had a lot going for us, but we had a lot to overcome with the realities of the costs."
He said the decision bodes well for the company's future and he hopes it will provide a new impetus for the state to forge ahead with local road and bridge projects that will be needed to support the new mill.
"I think it is time now for (PennDOT) to step up to the plate," he said.
The workers' reaction
The importance of Wednesday's decision was not lost on the rank-and-file steelworkers at Brackenridge. Several talked about it as they ended their shift Wednesday.
"It puts the future here," said Bill Bonner, a crane operator from East Brady. "If they're spending $1 billion on a strip mill, they're not leaving any time soon."
"It's a good thing for Brackenridge and the mill. Without (the expansion) I think we'd have lost a lot of jobs," said Brady, who has worked at the mill for 36 years.
Debra Durci of Cheswick, a Brackenridge native and 32-year Ludlum employee, agreed it will solidify the company's future.
"I don't think it will create jobs, but we shouldn't lose any," Durci said. "It should keep at least Brackenridge Works running."
Joe Kasanicky of Leechburg, has worked nearly 30 years at Ludlum. He believes it will be good for younger workers and those who follow in the years to come.
"After we retire, it will keep the jobs available." Kasanicky said.
"Right now it is going to enable us to compete on a global basis -- with any other steel company in the world," Walt Hill, the union local president, said. "With the vast materials that ATI produces, all of them will be able to be rolled at this plant. This mill is designed like no other in the world."
He said the challenge for the plant workers now is to keep productivity up as the mill is being built.
"It's going to be a lot of dedication and sacrifice by the work force to make this happen," Hill said. "But we're going to make this happen.
"We're going to be all right."
Staff writer Liz Hayes contributed to this story.
Tom Yerace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-4675.
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