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How are things in Granite City? Hopeful and holding their own

Granite City used TIF funds to build a new movie theater.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | File photo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 2, 2010 - There is a glowing sign of changing times in downtown Granite City: a stylish marquee on a just-completed state-of-the-art cinema, within eyeshot of an old landmark steel mill that's up and running again.

Granite City used $4.6 million in tax-increment financing funds to pay for the theater, in hopes that it will draw people downtown.

Now showing at the new Granite City Cinema: "The Expendables," "Despicable Me" in 3-D and a romantic comedy with a title that essentially sums up the current civic philosophy: "Going the Distance."

How are things in Granite City?

The community of about 30,000 is surviving and determined to keep moving forward, despite the still-tough economy, says Mayor Ed Hagnauer.

"Right now, Granite is holding our own,'' he says.

The two most visible outward signs:

  • Nearly 2,000 steelworkers who made national headlines when they were laid off from the Granite City Works of U.S. Steel at the height of the economy's collapse in early 2009 have been back on the job for months now.
  • The opening of the movie theater on Aug. 20 was the first major step in a plan to transform the decaying downtown into a thriving arts and entertainment center that celebrates Granite's industrial heritage. This was a fund-it-yourself project; the city used $4.6 million in tax-increment financing to pay for it. There hasn't been a movie theater in town for six years.

Hagnauer said the city also continues to make progress in diversifying its economic base.
Prairie Farms, for example, is expanding its current facility with a $15 million investment that will include some beautification of an area just blocks from the new theater. Retail development continues along Illinois Route 3: A new ALDI store opened in May, a Lowe's opened last fall and Wal-mart plans to expand its current site. And the Tri-City Port District was recently awarded $6 million in stimulus funds to build a terminal and railroad loop.

"U.S. Steel probably reaches out and touches 60 percent of our businesses whether it's electricians, steel fabricators, some of our tech people. That being said, there are other parts to us, and that's what our object was all along -- to let people know that we need the steel mill, but we will survive. We're a gritty bunch,'' Hagnauer said.

The theater is not only a civic achievement to be celebrated today but part of a longer term transition for downtown, he said.

"But it's a fight for us. It's a fight every day. We don't have money to fix every single road in Granite, but we feel what we're doing is creating an atmosphere to draw people back into a decayed downtown.''

'We had people cruising downtown'

In the spring of 2009, the eyes of the nation were on the idled steel works and its laid-off workers who refused to go quietly into the blight. They held "Buy American" rallies and protested the use of steel pipes made in India for the Keystone Pipeline to deliver oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Wood River.

About 39 percent of the steelworkers laid off from the Granite City Works live in the city, a fact that boosted a high unemployment rate even higher -- to 13.6 percent in March 2009. Last month, the rate was 12.5 percent.

Though the city doesn't have an earnings tax, there were concerns that if the workers ran out of unemployment benefits it would have a negative impact on local retailers -- and sales and property taxes.

Even with U.S. Steel back in production, Hagnauer said the worry never goes away.

"Naturally, the steel mills are always going to be a little unpredictable because of the market,'' he said.

In the meantime, the city has completed a new teen center, just blocks from the theater -- "a place for kids to hang out,'' he said.

On opening night of the cinema, the youth center also sponsored an event, attracting hundreds of people.

"We had people cruising downtown,'' Hagnauer said.

The plan for an artsy downtown hasn't been without its critics, and some elected officials were opposed to using TIF funds for the theater.

"The people who were against it are still against it, from the elected officials' standpoint. They've dug their heels in. But people in the community who maybe didn't understand it, now are starting to see that maybe this was the right thing,'' said Councilwoman Brenda Whitaker, who chairs the Downtown Rehabilitation Committee. "If you came down that Friday night and saw the activity in the street, it was just such a nice atmosphere and something that you hadn't seen in downtown Granite for a long time. There's a reason for people to come here.''

Hagnauer and Whitaker acknowledge that it is way too soon to declare the theater successful, but they believe it will be.

"It caters to the youngest and oldest residents,'' the mayor said. "It's something our people wanted."

Opening Soon: Revival

On Thursday evening, Jocelyn Harper and her 6-year-old grandson Gregory Williams waited outside the Granite City Cinema for a 6:50 p.m. showing of "The Return of Nanny McPhee."

Harper, 57, who lives nearby, said she is hoping that residents will support the theater and that it will be a success.

"We need something to bring up the downtown area,'' Harper said.

The theater, designed by Trivers Associates, pays tribute to the city's industrial tradition. It was built with American-made steel and union labor. The three theaters offer an "intimate" atmosphere with a total capacity of about 500.

The city owns the theater but has contracted with St. Louis Cinemas to manage it. St. Louis Cinemas also operates the Moolah Theatre, Chase Park Plaza Cinemas and Galleria Cinemas.

Ticket prices are competitive: $7.50 for adults, $6 for students and seniors and $5 for children. Tickets for 3-D movies are $2.50 higher.

Judy Knapp of Granite City is planning her own downtown comeback. She has bought a vacant building owned by the city on Niedringhaus Avenue directly across from the theater and plans to open a shop called Revival, specializing in floral designs and "recreated" decorative pieces, furniture and re-sale clothing.

"We are going to give new life to old things -- and that's also what we plan to do in downtown Granite City,'' Knapp said.

Knapp, who used to operate a flower shop in downtown Granite, currently owns a shop in Edwardsville. She said she has been lured back by the city's plans to revive the district, and she likes the proximity to St. Louis where she provides flowers to several businesses.

"I think this administration has vision,'' she said.

Other businesses are also moving into empty storefronts that have been deteriorating for years. There's a new art gallery, and a pizzeria will soon open. But everyone seems to agree that downtown Granite's days as a thriving retail district are a memory of last century.

"It's not going to be the retail center that it was -- that's now Route 3 and the Nameoki area,'' Whitaker said. "Things are cyclical and things change, but we know that if you don't control your downtown area and there's a cancer there, the cancer spreads. The only way we could change it in our opinion is to take this approach.''

Whitaker, a former steelworker who has operated the Garden Gate Tea Room on Niedringhaus for 10 years, points to a new open-air market that has attracted hundreds of people downtown on Saturday mornings. The Melting Pot market is held in the park across from the theater on the second Saturday of the month through October. The market features an eclectic array of artwork, jewelry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and pastries. The next event is Sept. 11.

The city also has plans to renovate the old YMCA building downtown into a performing arts center, though that will have to wait until the economy -- and the bond market -- improves, Hagnauer said.

In the meantime, he hopes revitalization efforts will attract artists who will work -- and live -- in the district.

"We want to bring artists in, not just to rent but to buy. Everywhere they go, they do such a good job they price themselves out of places to live and places to do their artwork,'' he said.

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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