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Can a movie theater save downtown Granite City?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - What a prize they would be today, that bat and baseball autographed by the St. Louis Cardinals and presented to Ed Hagnauer, now the mayor of Granite City, and his brother during an outing to Busch Stadium in 1964.

The big names were all there: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, Mike Shannon ... the entire team that would go on to win the World Series that season. Yes, that ball and bat were special mementos, courtesy of then-Cardinals infielder Dal Maxvill, who grew up in Granite City.

But Hagnauer can only guess at what they would be worth today because, as he tells the story, one day he and his pals ran out of balls and bats for a sandlot pickup game.

"So guess what? We went and took that baseball autographed by every guy on the 1964 team -- and that bat -- and we took them out to the sandlots. We ruined the ball and broke the bat. They would be worth thousands and thousands today," Hagnauer says. "But we made do for ourselves. We tried."

And that day, they played ball.

Location, location, location

Hagnauer, 56, said he reached back to his own childhood to motivate local youngsters to be innovative during a recent visit to a middle school.

"Do what I did," he told them. "Go get a broom and cut the end off it. Go get a tennis ball, and get some buddies. And play cork ball, football, basketball. When it really got tough, me and my brother would play off our front steps. We stayed busy. We didn't complain that there's not enough to do."

Hagnauer is all about resourcefulness as he works to bring the downtown core of his town of 30,000 out of its "stagnant" days. He is forthright about his hometown -- proud, but honest.

"Granite City has always been known as a 'Steel Town' with all the associated connotations, both good and bad," he wrote in his message on the city's website. "Indeed, we have several large steel plants in the city, which provide high paying employment for thousands of people. We have grown, flourished, and, unfortunately, in the last few years stagnated."

Recent layoffs, including 2,000 steelworkers from the idled Granite City Works of U.S. Steel, have thrust the town into the headlines. City officials worry about the long-term effects if the plant isn't up and running by summer when steelworkers begin to lose some of their benefits.

The news, however, continues to be troubling. Last week, the steelmaker reported net losses of $439 million in its first quarter, and this week announced plans to idle steel operations at a plant in Fairfield, Ala., affecting more than 1,700 union workers there.

City leaders fear that the impact could go deeper than the loss of sales tax revenue, as laid-off workers cut back on spending. Councilman David Partney said the U.S. Steel plant, which can trace its roots to the city's founding more than 100 years ago, has never been idled like this.

"I could see (U.S. Steel) possibly filing some tax objections if they stay idle much longer -- if they're not proceeding and making money over there. They're going to want to have their plant classified as a warehouse and pay a lot less taxes," Partney said.

As worrisome as the mill layoffs are, city officials hasten to point out that the economy of Granite City is more diversified than steel.

"We're not putting all of our marbles in the steel bag anymore,'' said Jonathan Ferry, the city's economic development director. "We just can't afford to do that."

On the city's plus side is the town's location on the Mississippi River. There is the busy Tri-City Port District and its River's Edge development, located in Granite City, Madison and Venice, that handles 3 million tons of products every year via river barges, railcars and trucks. The development is home to more than 75 tenants, ranging from technology businesses to warehousing.

Also on the plus side: The city's center is just 11.87 miles to the center of St. Louis. City officials see the short commute as a driver for future business and residential development, spurred, they hope, by the refurbished McKinley Bridge.

On the down side is the city's decaying downtown core, with its rows of empty storefronts that reinforce an image of decline.

Revitalizing downtown is near and dear to Hagnauer, who lives just a few blocks from City Hall. He and his wife bought their pretty blue Victorian 35 years ago on a street of grand old homes once known as "Silk Stocking Row.'' He says he ran for mayor in 2005 because his daughter, who lives across the street, was concerned about the way the neighborhood was going.

"That's the thing that lit my fire, as far as becoming mayor," said Hagnauer, who has lived in the city all of his life. "My daughter was talking to me about the area getting a little rough, that they were thinking about moving. That upset me. That meant I was going to have to move because I'm following those grandbabies wherever they go. I thought, 'I'm sitting here watching my town, my community slowly deteriorate.' There are things I can do."

Two sides of town

Though downtown is no longer the thriving shopping district that Hagnauer remembers from his youth, Nameoki Commons is a bustling shopping center on the east end of town. There is a Wal-Mart out on Route 3; and, despite the economic downturn, construction continues on a Lowe's home improvement store, which will anchor another retail development, also along that highway.

Ferry said the city sees Route 3 as a corridor of opportunity that will strengthen the town's retail base.

"This is huge for the city because there will be a lot of incentive for people to see that they don't have to go outside the city limits to shop,'' he said.

Ferry says that, in a sense, Granite City is two towns -- the result of urban sprawl.

"Downtown is very urban, much more dense. And then once you get to the other side of Nameoki Road, it becomes mostly all ranch homes. And they are sort of two different towns, two different cultures,'' Ferry said.

Ferry said a long-range goal is to hire a city planner to help connect the city. In the short term, the administration is enforcing housing ordinances, cracking down on absentee landlords and, in general, cleaning up the city.

"It's easy to clean up," said Hagnauer, matter-of-factly. "You may not have a lot of money, but doggone it you can clean up your yard. If you can't haul it to the landfill, we'll haul it for you."

Working with Madison County, the city also offers the Mayor's Scattered Housing program, in which affordable new homes are built in older neighborhoods on lots where condemned properties have been torn down.

Councilman Partney, who says that he is often at odds with the mayor, praises the new construction program, which he says entices neighbors to spruce up their properties, as well.

"It will help us keep some of our younger people who move because they want newer homes,'' he said.

Hagnauer said that because homes in Granite City are more affordable than in some neighboring communities, the local real estate market has not taken a hit with the economic downturn.

"We don't have the $400,000 to $500,000 houses in Granite,'' he said.

In older neighborhoods, homes might sell for $40,000 to $150,000, with homes in newer subdivisions topping out at $300,000,'' he said.

"Once the steelworkers lose some of their benefits, and they have to start making a decision to pay for this or pay for that, and if the jobs don't come back, then we're in a different ballgame," he said. "Right now, we haven't been put in that position."

It's showtime for downtown

If the mayor has a pet project, it would be the new movie theater the city is building downtown.

Hagnauer says that when he was campaigning for mayor, both younger residents and seniors talked about the need for a movie theater in town.

The architect has completed designs for the project, which is being constructed with $4 million from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District, established by the city in 1986. Hagnauer says the funds must be spent within the TIF district.

Hagnauer sees the theater and a new youth and sports center, which the city is developing in the former Granite City Press-Record building, as a way to draw residents back downtown and spur development in the area. In 2007, the city also began streetscape beautification near City Hall and installed a camera system to deter crime downtown.

"I'm proud of Granite City," Hagnauer said. "I want my grandkids to stay here, and I want other kids to stay here. That's why we're doing what we're doing."

The youth center, renovated at a cost of about $400,000, is slated to open in June. It features an indoor baseball facility, a fitness center and a gathering place for social events. The Granite City Ministerial Alliance will oversee programs and provide volunteer workers, Hagnauer said.

The mayor's plans for downtown is not without critics. Partney, who cast the one dissenting council vote against the movie theater, said the city shouldn't be involved in what should be a private enterprise -- and he doubts it will attract enough patrons to be financially successful.

"Right now our downtown area looks like a war zone,' he said. "I think we're too early in putting something like that in, and I don't even know if we're too late in saving the downtown area because so much has been torn down."

Partney said he believes the city should buy vacant properties, "fancy up" the sidewalks and curbs and lure private developers to develop small commercial business in the area.

"I just can see the movie theater being a big loser for us down the road," Partney said. "They're building it with TIF funds. OK, but that's still tax money. There is no free money. This is tax money that comes out of that district that has to be spent in that district, but the operations cannot be paid for by TIF funds. That will come directly out of our general fund. And looking at their projections it's just too much pie in the sky on the financial end of it. I think it's going to be a big loser for the city."

On the other hand, Partney said he has always supported the youth center and believes it will fill a long-existing need.

Rick Daily, president of the Junior Warrior Baseball Association, a nonprofit organization that started the youth center project, praised the city for its investment. Volunteers have done about 90 percent of the work, and local businesses have contributed, making it a real community effort.

"I wish we had something like this when I was young,'' said Daily, 44, who grew up in Granite City.

Daily, an electrician at U.S. Steel's Granite City plant, has helped work on the center. He is laid off now, and says the talk around town is that the plant won't reopen soon.

"What do you do?" he said. "You can't sit around and worry all day. It's tough for everybody.''

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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