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This former steel mill used to employ thousands—how the site is adapting and creating jobs now

The Bethlehem steel mill in Maryland was once the largest working mill in the world, employing 30,000 people at its peak in the 1950's. The collapse of the American steel industry forced the mill into bankruptcy, closing for good in 2012. Now, new economic opportunities are rising on the land where the mill once stood. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports from Baltimore County on the challenges and successes creating jobs in a once-thriving port.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more than a hundred years, a steel mill on the Patapsco River near Baltimore was a major economic driver of the region. At its height in the 1950s, it employed tens of thousands of workers.

    When it closed for good, almost a decade ago, few people thought the economic prosperity it provided could ever be replaced.

    But over the last several years, a new set of businesses has risen at the site of the former steel mill – and ushered in an economic transition that reflects the new landscape of jobs in today's American economy.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy has our story from Maryland.

  • Karla Murthy:

    So this was specifically built for Black families?

  • Larry Bannerman:

    Yes.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Sixty-eight-year-old Larry Bannerman grew up in Turner Station, a historically Black neighborhood in Baltimore County, Maryland.

  • Larry Bannerman:

    It was open doors and people left the keys in a car. Everybody's parents watched everybody's children. It was like Mayberry, like a Black Mayberry. It was, it was great.

  • Karla Murthy:

    He says a big reason it was so great is because there were plenty of good-paying jobs for residents, including his family, just across the bay in Sparrows Point, at the steel mill that had been operating there since 1889.

  • Larry Bannerman:

    There was no place you could go in Turner Station and not hear and see what was happening at Sparrows Point.

  • Karla Murthy:

    At its height in the 1950s, the Bethlehem Steel Mill was the largest mill in the world and employed 30,000 people. Union workers were paid wages that supported their families and built thriving middle-class neighborhoods.

  • Larry Bannerman:

    It was the economic powerhouse for this community and enabled this community to grow and enabled our residents to send their kids to college.

  • Karla Murthy:

    But as the American steel industry collapsed from overseas competition and disinvestment, so did Bethlehem Steel, which eventually went bankrupt in 2001. Over the next 10 years, four other companies tried to make steel at Sparrows Point, but also failed. In 2012, this once-mighty industrial center went silent.

    How did that affect Turner Station? How did it affect the community here?

  • Larry Bannerman:

    People lost their homes. There were people who lost everything. I mean, we watched the blast furnace where our parents worked be blown up. They actually blew it up and that thing fell over like a big lump. And I mean, so did our hearts. Oh, nobody believed they could replace it.

  • Karla Murthy:

    But almost a decade after the steel mills shut down, a new economic landscape is rising from Sparrows Point. Instead of steel mills and smoke, the view now is…

  • Larry Bannerman:

    Amazon blue and white.

  • Karla Murthy:

    In 2018 Amazon opened an 855,000 square foot fulfillment warehouse. And last year opened a second that's over a million square feet. Fedex, Under Armor, BMW are some of the 30 companies that have opened distribution centers on the former steel mill site that's now called Tradepoint Atlantic.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    It's a very diverse set of businesses operating on site. And they're defining the new economy that has taken shape over the last ten years,

  • Karla Murthy:

    Aaron Tomarchio is the Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic. Its parent company, Redwood Capital Investments, acquired the 3,300-acre site for a reported $150 million. Tomarchio says the growth of e-commerce has fueled the transformation of Sparrows Point into a global distribution hub.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    What is really unique about this property, is the convergence of all of this infrastructure assets that were left over from a 19th-century steel mill and are now being repurposed. Karla Murthy: For instance, the site has access to a deepwater port. Once used to bring in raw materials to manufacture steel, it now brings in brand new Audis and Volkswagens. Located centrally on the east coast, nearly one-third of the US population is within a day's drive. There's also an onsite rail line that can bring in products en masse, directly into the warehouses.

  • Phill Snyder:

    Each boxcar represents at least 4 truckloads of flatbed trucks

  • Karla Murthy:

    Phill Snyder is the General Manager of this Home Depot facility. He says all that infrastructure was a big reason the company built a 700,000 square foot distribution center here in 2019.

  • Phill Snyder:

    What we're seeing is customers want to order what they want, when they want it, wherever they want it. We can put a large labor force in here. We can fit 30 flatbed trucks in an effort to be able to accomplish that for the region.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Home Depot has plans to double its footprint with another center later this year, and will employ 500 people at both facilities. But it's not all warehouses. On the northern end of Sparrows Point, Gotham Greens opened a 100,000 thousand square foot greenhouse last year.

  • Julie McMahon:

    Our goal is to grow locally and distribute regionally, but on a national scale. So this is one of our network of greenhouses in cities across America.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Julie McMahon is the Senior Brand Manager at Gotham Greens. The company hydroponically grows 6 million heads of lettuce here every year and ships directly to surrounding stores.

  • Julie McMahon:

    What we're really trying to do is reimagine these urban landscapes that once were really major hubs for manufacturing. And really coming in and thinking about what the new version of 21st-century manufacturing looks like. And maybe that's a local greenhouse.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Sixty people are employed full-time here. Across all companies combined – there are now 10,000 people employed on Tradepoint Atlantic's site. But turning a former steel mill into a distribution center has its challenges.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    The biggest obstacle that we really had to work through was the idea that this site, because it produced steel for 125 years, was no longer going to be a steel mill, that it was going to be something different. And getting the community to buy into what that vision is took, took, took steps.

  • Larry Bannerman:

    There was a lot of skepticism.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Larry Bannerman recalls when Aaron Tomarchio first came out to Turner Station to talk with community members about the plans for Sparrows Point. One of Bannerman's main concerns was the environmental clean-up of the former steel mill site.

  • Larry Bannerman:

    We want to see the right thing happen with pollution remediation. So that's that's always been a big thing here.

  • Karla Murthy:

    He remembers the toll working at the steel mill had on his father's health. As a kid, he says the smokestacks would spew out orange dust that would stain their clothes. And the local beach had to be closed because kids were getting lesions on their skin from swimming in the water.

    Can you get in the water now?

  • Larry Bannerman:

    No! I mean you can get in a canoe or something. That pollution over there, it's historic, it's going to take a long time to clean it up.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Tradepoint has so far committed over $70 million to clean up the site in an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and local officials. Water pumps are filtering contaminated groundwater and a heavily polluted runoff ditch has already been cleaned up.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    You can see the terrain, how uneven it is…

  • Karla Murthy:

    Tradepoint also had to figure out what to do with the mounds of slag on site, a leftover byproduct from the steelmaking process that can be toxic.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    They basically created land, and then built up the land by piling slag on top of it.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Here they are processing the slag not only to level the site, but also because it makes a great infill to build on.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    So this is going to be used as fill material and base material for the new development projects that you see off into the distance here.

  • Karla Murthy:

    To date, Tradepoint and its tenants have invested more than $2 billion to upgrade and redevelop the site, and it's now nearly 60 percent built out.

  • John Olszewski:

    it really is a model, I think, for innovation and for transformation.

  • Karla Murthy:

    John Olszewski is the County Executive for Baltimore County, a Democrat and a lifelong resident of the area.

  • John Olszewski:

    As hard as it was for some members of our community to see it go to now, see national companies coming in and thousands of jobs returning, environmental remediation, it's a true community asset now.

  • Karla Murthy:

    But whether thousands of non-union jobs in warehouses can generate the same path to the middle class as the steel industry did for generations of workers is in question. Adjusted for inflation, a new hire at the Sparrows Point Steel Mill in the mid-90s would have started earning between $21 and $30 an hour, far above the advertised $15 an hour today at companies like amazon.

    How do you respond to the criticism that, yes, you know, there are now 10,000 new jobs, but many of those warehouse jobs do not compare to the wages and the stability of the jobs that you could get at the steel mill?

  • John Olszewski:

    They're not steel mill jobs. But we also have to reckon as a country the fact that those jobs are not necessarily the jobs that are going to be created. And so while there may not be manufacturing jobs on site in the way that it was at when it was Sparrows Point and Bethlehem Steel and subsequent iterations, I mean, people were excited to have people working again on site. They were excited to have economic activity.

  • Karla Murthy:

    He also points out that local officials negotiated with Tradepoint to ensure that minority-owned local businesses would benefit from the development, like Strum Contracting.

  • James Strum:

    We had a year's worth of work, and in construction if you have a place to go for a year, you're doing good.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Strum is a family-owned welding and fabricating company in Baltimore, founded by James Strum and now run by his daughter Teaera Strum. The company was hired by Tradepoint Atlantic to structurally shore-up the berth at the deepwater port. It was the largest contract they had ever received. To complete the work, Strum created eight new full time positions and filled them with welding trainees out of a local workforce development program, doubling its staff.

  • Teaera Strum:

    Construction is one of the easiest ways to make a good wage when you have low barriers to entry and low skill sets. They go from making seven, eight dollars an hour to, at the bare minimum, eighteen to twenty dollars an hour with benefits. So the revitalization of Tradepoint Atlantic has allowed firms like Strum Contracting to scale and grow and provide jobs for the community.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Strum also acquired a larger facility in hopes of getting more work from the Tradepoint development, building and installing platforms, handrails, and stairs for offshore wind turbines.

    The Danish company Orsted has leased 45 acres there as part of its plan to develop offshore wind projects off the coast of Maryland. The first, to be completed by 2026.

  • Karla Murthy:

    That hasn't happened yet. It is a risk. I mean, are you worried at all about the future?

  • Teaera Strum:

    I'm not. If we were not ready, this opportunity would pass us by.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    Every crane I see moving is a job. And seven years ago, there was nothing.

  • Karla Murthy:

    While Tomarchio acknowledges that these may not all be the manufacturing jobs of the past, he says Tradepoint Atlantic is meeting a need in today's economy.

  • Aaron Tomarchio:

    What happened here in Baltimore in Sparrows Point is very emblematic of what's happened across our nation, and what happened to the American industrial economy. People want those older economy jobs back. And, you know, I don't have the ability to bring them back. I have the ability to respond to the market and be able to provide the best opportunities for job creation in the market that we're in.

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