Steel workers back at the mill and feeling good

By this time next week, the ArcelorMittal Steel Mill in Georgetown will - for the first time in about 18 months - produce steel.

Last week the mill fired up its furnaces and started making small batches of steel as test runs for the nearly 264,000 tons of wire rod expected to come out the mill annually, based on market conditions.

That's about 480,000 tons less than the mill is capable of producing, but workers are optimistic the mill will remain open.

Mark Mercer said he had "pretty much given up" on the idea that the mill would reopen. He had been working at the mill for about 21 years when it closed in July 2009 because of a lack of orders.

But he said he feels sure the mill will stay open for more than a few years.

"If they were going to just run it for a few more years they would have just patched it up," he said. But "I've never seen so much done. ... They are spending a lot of money. It's really looking good."

Donald Davis, a mill employee for about 11 years, said he had faith all along that the factory would reopen.

"I was just waiting for it to open back up," he said as he stood waiting to cross the street with co-worker Damien Howard. "I got my letter about two weeks ago, and it was exciting."

Davis said now he is "just waiting for that steel to come through."

And the Georgetown community is waiting to see what impact the mill's reopening will have on its economy.

"It will be substantial," said Wayne Gregory, Georgetown County Economic Development director.

He said it will take time before area unemployment numbers show the impact of the mill's reopening but "it definitely has a strong impact."

There are many businesses in the area that are suppliers or customers of the mill, but Gregory said "it just takes time for companies to get going once again."

He said he expects to see a big difference in the unemployment numbers by April or May.

Georgetown's most recent unemployment rate stood at 11.7 percent. But taking the mill's 187 employees out of the unemployed category and back into the work force would bring that rate to about 11 percent.

The mill is working up to filling those 187 positions, said local United Steelworkers Union President James Sanderson.

He said there are between 10 and 15 open positions at the mill that have to be filled.

"We took in over 700 applications" for those jobs, he said. He said ArcelorMittal is now in the process of sorting through applications.

When the mill closed, it had almost 250 employees, but Sanderson said approximately 35 people retired and a few decided not to come back to work.

Howard said those who did not come back to work are missed.

But he said he is "so happy to be back. It's like a family away from home."