The end of steelmaking but not of Sparrows Point

The great steel mill of Sparrows Point is gone, and it's never coming back. Local, state and federal officials, along with union leaders, made a valiant attempt to find a new operator who would restart production there, but it was not to be. The plant's 12-year-old cold mill is being sold to a company that will disassemble it and use it for spare parts, and the rest of the complex will be razed to the ground. An institution that provided not just employment but an identity to a community, a factory that represented America's industrial and military might, is now just another relic of history.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, whose relatives worked at Bethlehem Steel and who saw steelworkers every day in her father's Highlandtown grocery, lamented the loss in a speech Thursday, and she put it in context not just as a loss to a community but as symbolic of a threat to the nation. Her speech conveys the bewilderment of those who understood their work at the steel mill as vital to what made this country great, and it is worth quoting at some length.

"They thought they had a job, that it would last forever, because America would need steel. Well, it doesn't look that way because ... we looked the other way when foreign imports began to drive down our prices and drive down our steel mills," she said. "What will happen to America if we need more steel to go to war? ... What are we doing to America, and what are we doing to our manufacturing?"

"Right now our whole [tax] code is oriented toward protecting people who make money off of money," she added. "Well, let me tell you, we're overdue already in getting a big wake-up call."

Ms. Mikulski urged fellow senators to preserve elements of the social safety net, such as extended unemployment insurance, in whatever deal they reach to avert the fiscal cliff. She also advocated for including provisions to create jobs through renewed investment in American infrastructure. Such an effort, she said, would reignite demand for American raw materials and manufacturing. We certainly endorse that idea, but that won't help Sparrows Point, and ultimately it won't affect the conditions that contributed to the plant's decline.

President Barack Obama, during the fall campaign, touted his administration's efforts to promote exports and restore the nation's industrial sector. America can compete, he said, and it can win. He's right about that, but that doesn't mean it will dominate the world market for steel or mass-produced consumer goods the way it did during Sparrows Point's heyday in the 1940s and 1950s.

Never again will Baltimore have a company that pays middle-class wages to tens of thousands of people with nothing more than a high school education. America's competitive advantage comes in high-tech, high-skill manufacturing. That kind of work is now highly automated and requires workers with advanced education.

Fortunately, Maryland provides an environment where that kind of manufacturing can thrive. We have invested heavily in K-12 education, and the state is focusing on aligning its post-secondary education (both community colleges and four-year institutions) on providing the skills necessary for today's job market. Many of the remaining workers at Sparrows Point already have advanced training and skills that can be transferable to other industries — though not necessarily at the same level of wages and benefits they saw from steelmaking. And the opportunity exists for future generations to find good work building things here again.

Baltimore County's Sparrows Point Partnership has been working to identify non-steelmaking uses for the former mill property, and there is good reason to think they may be successful. The environmental contamination on the site is a liability, but the location also has key assets. Sparrows Point sits in the middle of the East Coast and has access to interstate highways, rail lines and a deep-water berth. As the Port of Baltimore expands, it's likely that related businesses could thrive on Sparrows Point.

The demolition of the steel mill signals the end of an era, but not the end of manufacturing in Baltimore or the end of Sparrows Point. Whatever comes next likely won't define a community the way Bethlehem Steel did, and it may not provide the same kind of stability and security that accompanied a century of steelmaking there. But there remains a real chance that the area will once again be home to family-sustaining manufacturing jobs. The path forward is difficult but it is not necessarily bleak.

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