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Leaving Sparrows Point for jobs in other states

Joshua Polanowski was one of the first to go. He drove south in his 15-year-old GMC pickup truck, leaving behind freezing cold and a forever-closed steel mill for a balmy winter and a choice of manufacturing jobs.

Forrest and Lacey Martin followed with their two daughters and pair of cats.

Goodbye, Maryland. Hello, Texas.

The demise of Sparrows Point and its 2,000 jobs last year has forced many life-changing decisions. For a small but growing number of workers, that change is an out-of-state address.

Relocating for work, especially manufacturing, is a well-trod path in the United States. African-Americans went north for industrial jobs in the Great Migration of the 20th century. For several decades, "GM gypsies" have left towns where General Motors closed plants, building new lives in communities where the automaker still produced cars.

Now the Sparrows Point diaspora has begun, sending steelworkers to Texas, to Pennsylvania, to South Carolina, to California.

"There's been a wide dispersal," said Chris MacLarion, who was vice president of the United Steelworkers Local 9477 in Sparrows Point when the mill — the only one in the state — closed its doors.

About 150,000 people work in U.S. steel mills, roughly 50,000 fewer than in 2000, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Iron and Steel Institute. But Chuck Bradford, a New York-based metals analyst, said there should be options for job-seeking steelworkers willing to move, despite pressures on the industry. Steel mills are full of employees at the cusp of retirement, he said.

"There are a lot of people that need to be replaced, and it's hard to get people with good skills," Bradford said.

For Sparrows Point steelworkers, moving means leaving behind more than a familiar neighborhood. It's an uprooting from a tight-knit community where nearly everyone had a connection to the steel mill, where family trees include multiple generations who toiled there.

For Polanowski and the Martins, however, staying put meant a big pay cut. And daily reminders of loss. They, at least, were happy to go.

"I am going to miss the area I grew up in, but I can't wait to get away and start over," said Forrest Martin, 31, just before his family left in mid-February.

He started work at a JSW Steel plant near Houston on Monday — the fifth person there from Sparrows Point. More are on the way, or trying to land a job there.

For Martin, it's the first move out of state after a lifetime in Maryland, most of it on Choptank Avenue in Middle River. He and his wife, Lacey, lived next door to his parents' house, the home he grew up in. She has deep ties to the area, too — her grandfather and many other relatives worked at the Point.

"Nobody in my family, my immediate family, has ever left Baltimore," said Lacey Martin, 31. "My mother, especially, is taking it terribly. … It took a lot of convincing that 'we aren't doing this to hurt you — we're doing this to provide the best future we can for our kids.'"

After he lost his job at Sparrows Point, which paid $20 an hour and offered lots of overtime, Forrest Martin landed a $13-an-hour position at a rebar fabricator in Baltimore. He thinks he'll end up earning about $65,000 a year in Texas, counting overtime, which would beat even the Point.

And the Martins are thrilled by the lower cost of living. The four-bedroom rancher they're renting in Baytown, Texas? $899 a month. In their old stamping grounds, "you can't find a one-bedroom for that," Forrest Martin said.

Texas, so different culturally and politically from Maryland, wouldn't have been Lacey Martin's first choice, it's true. Besides that, she'll miss Berger cookies and Utz chips. And for the Martins' daughters, 4-year-old Ophelia and 3-year-old Alice, the fact that they're now far from their grandparents — 1,400 miles away — is only just setting in.

But before leaving, Forrest Martin got his parents connected to the Web and set up with Skype so the family can see each other via Internet calls, if not in person. And Lacey Martin, dealing with the isolation of being brand-new in a strange place, has reason to believe that too will pass. Everyone seems so friendly, she said.

Right before the move, she felt equally excited and terrified. But she didn't have second thoughts about the decision to leave.

"You have to go where the opportunity is, and I don't feel like it's here anymore," she said then, as she took a break from packing. "Unless you're a doctor — if you're a doctor, you're set. But if you're not, not so much."

The Texas manufacturing sector has recovered partially from its recessionary pummeling, thanks to oil-industry demand for pipes and other equipment. The state has added more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs since the end of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Maryland, the sector continued its long contraction, down 9,000 jobs over the same period — in part because of Sparrows Point.

Polanowski, 31, who moved to Texas in December, said he feels so much better to be living in a state where manufacturing workers have options.

"If the same thing were to happen to me again, it's almost like I could walk down the road and find another job overnight," he said. "It's just good to have that self-confidence back that was torn away when we had the bottom drop out and lost everything."

Polanowski is a second-shift supervisor at American National Carbide outside Houston, a plant that makes carbide products, including tooling for the oil-drilling industry. He expects to move his wife and kids down this weekend — they remained in Dundalk until the family had enough money to move all their belongings.

The early days were rough, and not just because he was alone. Between tight finances and a payment mix-up with the motel he was staying at, he was left with $11 to live on, plus the tuna fish, canned beef stew and other food he brought from home.

"I went to the dollar store, bought a Sterno can and a little metal rack, and that's how I cooked my food for the first two weeks I was down here," he said.

But then his paychecks starting coming in. He moved to a three-bedroom townhouse in a gated community in Tomball, within walking distance of work. Now life is great, with winter months as comfortable as a mild summer day — recent highs in the 60s and 70s — and no state income tax to take a bite out of his paycheck. (Property taxes are higher in his new county than in Baltimore County, though, which is typical of Texas.)

He's trying to talk others from the Point into coming down, too. His move convinced Forrest Martin to take the leap — they're friends — but Polanowski can't persuade everyone.

"A lot of people feel they don't want to come down because they have family up there," he said. "That seems to be the main thing keeping people."

Harry Kowalevicz, a Sparrows Point mechanic for 16 years, isn't sure what he'd do with his Middle River house if he moved. Sell? Rent? Leave his family here — his kids are 15, 18 and 21 — and live apart from them?

But three months ago, he started applying out of state. Pennsylvania. Texas. Iowa. North Dakota.

"It's a big decision, and I'm praying I find something here in Maryland, but I've got to take whatever comes first that is a decent offer," said Kowalevicz, 42.

Dave Polanowski, Joshua's uncle, figures a couple of hundred Sparrows Point workers will ultimately move for new jobs. After following his father into the mill and working there 17 years, he'll likely be one of them. He's interviewing in neighboring states, and he could also turn contractor, teaming up with other Point maintenance workers to keep blast furnaces running in the Ohio Valley.

Either way, his wife and seven daughters — two of whom will be in high school next fall — will stay put. That's why he doesn't want to go far. Like Texas.

He's not wild about living partially apart from his family. But sitting at home, not working, is worse.

"I've got to find something," Polanowski said. "And now it seems, taking Baltimore as a box, I've got to look outside the box. Because it is not here."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

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