After sitting idle for more than a year, the ArcelorMittal steel mill is expected to reopen in the next few months, providing a welcome economic boost in a county where the jobless rate is higher than the state or national average.
"The decision has been made to reopen the plant here in Georgetown," James Sanderson, president of the local steelworkers union, said Thursday. He made the announcement to a group of union members and officials from the city of Georgetown and Georgetown County.
Sanderson said he did not have a lot of details on timing or how many workers might be rehired, but he got word on Wednesday that the mill would be opening again soon.
"And I hope you all have a new definition of the word 'soon,'" he said laughing, making light of the fact that he has had to tell the workers that the mill will be re-opening "soon" since the mill closed in July 2009.
A spokeswoman for ArcelorMittal said Wednesday the company is "currently evaluating market conditions to determine a timeline for the restart of our Georgetown facility," and will provide updates as they become available.
Sanderson said he was told at a meeting with company officials that maintenance workers will be called back to the mill in the next few weeks to begin repairing equipment so full-scale production can begin in the next few months. He said he would have more details about the timing after a meeting today.
Once the necessary maintenance is made to the plant, workers will begin to be called back, Sanderson said. He expects the plant to be at full production by January.
"At that time we'll have 240 employees there," he said. "It will be ramped up within a three-month period."
In April 2009, mill officials said the plant would go down in 60 days, due to lack of orders. The federal WARN act required the two-month notice of the shut-down. That announcement came after months of on-and-off layoffs as the sputtering economy crushed the demand for steel.
The mill stopped production on July 10, 2009, laying off about 240 workers.
Since then, the unemployment rate in Georgetown County has continued to climb, hitting 11.7 percent in August, the most recent figures available. South Carolina has the sixth-highest jobless rate in the country, at 11 percent.
Workers and the community, which relies on the mill for tax income as well as employment, have been disappointed before, when prospects for reopening the plant evaporated.
For example, about six weeks after the shutdown, the company asked for concessions to stave off the impact of the economic slowdown. Members of Steelworkers Union Local 7898 voted to decline the company's offer of a reduced 32-hour workweek and a $3.65 per hour pay cut during order shortages.
In June, the workers voted to approve concessions that included a $3.65-an-hour wage cut, but did away with a previous request that would have increased insurance costs.
The contract also put certain safeguards in place including: a guarantee that once the mill reopens, it will not be shut down until the contract expires in September 2012, and that employees will work 40 hours a week.
It also allows renegotiation for a 32-hour week if the economy struggles.
Still, workers waited for word on when - or whether - the plant would reopen.
On Thursday, dozens of former mill workers gathered in the union hall to hear the welcome news that their wait may soon be over.
"It'll feel good to go back," said Abdul Humes, who has been working at the plant for 17 years.
He said it's been tough waiting to hear what would happen at the mill.
"We had been hearing for the last two or three months [that something would happen soon] and today, finally, good news," Humes said.
Ray Hammond, who has been at the mill for 37 years, was waiting to hear not only for his himself and his own job, but for his three sons who also work at the mill.
"It's rough with three boys and yourself out of a job," he said.
Hammond said he's thankful he'll be able to work for a few more years before retiring.
"I hope we'll go back soon," said Johnny Poston, who had worked at the mill for 10 years. "I'd go back tomorrow."
Sanderson warned that "in order to keep the steel mill open we're going to have to get that port dredged," he said.
The topic of dredging, which determines the size of cargo ships that can come and go from the port, came up several times.
Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said the city was told at a meeting of mill officials in March that three things were needed before the mill could re-open: better contracts; better steel prices; and the dredging of the port.
"We didn't have anything we could do about the steel prices or y'alls contracts, but we could do something about the dredging," Scoville said.
Scoville said city and county officials as well as local business leaders are continuing to work to get the port dredged.
"We still don't have a commitment to get the port dredged, and that is going to be crucial to the success of this mill," he said.
City Councilwoman Jeanette Ard gave the union members credit for "not giving up hope that it would reopen and just believing that it would."
"It is a great day for our city and our county and our state," she said.
Ard said she is glad to know that the people gathered in the hall would be going back to work.
"Because it not only affects the families that work here, it affects all the businesses that operate in the city and county," she said.
The mill has been the source of several economic ups and downs for the region. In 2003, the plant, then known as Georgetown Steel, filed for bankruptcy. It reopened under new ownership in 2004. ArcelorMittal, the world's second-largest steel producer, bought the plant in 2007.
One small example of the mill's impact can be found in the tobacco shop that operates in its shadow on Fraser Street.
Mill workers used to come across the street on their breaks to grab cigarettes, said Sharon Mills, an employee of Tobacco Market. When the mill closed, that business went with it.
"Of course we want the mill back," she said.