Rebranding of Sparrows Point bittersweet

New name aims to enhance global appeal

The men and women who toiled at Bethlehem Steel, and the neighbors of the Sparrows Point mill that powered the local economy for more than a century, say they've long since worked through the early stages of grief over its closure three years ago.

They saw the place sold at auction in 2014. They watched a new ownership group sweep in with plans to turn it into a 3,100-acre industrial and transportation complex. Many gathered to witness the demolition of its 32-story L Blast Furnace last year.

To some, though, the most recent change feels like a step too far.

In a bid to enhance its global appeal, Sparrows Point Terminal, the Hanover-based firm that bought the site 16 months ago, changed its name this week to Tradepoint Atlantic

The move consigns to history a name Marylanders have associated with the site since Cecelius Calvert, second Baron Baltimore, granted hundreds of acres in what is now southeastern Baltimore County to an English-born planter, Thomas Sparrow, more than 360 years ago.

Don Kellner, a Dundalk resident who worked at the steel mill for 44 years, says that while the change might well have the desired effect — making the site more marketable to prospective tenants and customers overseas it doesn't ease the pain he's feeling.

"The name 'Sparrows Point' is synonymous with the land, with history, with the company we worked for for such a long time," says Kellner, the 79-year-old head of the Sparrows Point retirees association and a former president of United Steel Workers Local 9477. "I was hoping they'd keep it. I think it's shameful."

Kellner's wasn't the only view shared as Baltimore digested the change announced Tuesday by company CEO Michael Moore.

"As we make the transition from a local industrial powerhouse to a global transportation and logistics center, our new identity will help us build a global brand for a global economy," Moore said in a statement.

He unveiled the new name and a sleek new logo at an event with elected officials later in the day.

Some saw the changes as one more betrayal of cherished tradition. Others welcomed what they saw as a symbolic pivot from a sorrowful past to a more hopeful future.

For still others it was bittersweet, a symbolic assertion that an era that meant so much to so many people must end if a new one is to begin.

"The steel plant is and will be no more," said Baltimore County Councilman Todd K. Crandell. He grew up in Dundalk, home to many of the mill workers.

"That's a sad thing to face up to, but we have to make the transition away not only from what the site was but also away from our industrial past and toward our next phase. We have to recognize that we have a promising future."

Crandell's father, Bob, worked at the mill for 49 years, starting as a part-time scrap-metal instructor in the 1960s and working his way up to the position of property manager.

Moore told The Baltimore Sun last year that the company and property would need rebranding to make it easier to attract business from as far away as Europe and Asia.

He acknowledged that the name Sparrows Point is "meaningful in people's minds" locally. But it has little resonance beyond Baltimore, and the scale of the project needs to be "more easily understood in other parts of the world," he said.

The company bought the Internet domain tradepointatlantic.com in September.

Moore and other company officials have said they will find ways to celebrate the site's steelmaking heritage.

The "T" and the "A" in the new Tradepoint Atlantic logo form the upper three points of a star — an echo of the Star of Bethlehem that adorned the L Blast Furnace at the former steel mill from 1978 until it was demolished a year ago.

The firm restored the original star, hung it on the property's water treatment plant and lit it for the holiday season. Officials plan to find a more visible permanent location as the site is redeveloped.

Crandell said he's pleased Tradepoint Atlantic has retained the word "point" in its name, a gesture he sees as an homage to the nickname by which workers and the public knew the mill: "the Point."

One Dundalk booster called the past-and-future premise "inspired."

"It's great that it alludes to the legacy of Sparrows Point," said Amy Menzer, executive director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation. The nonprofit aims to attract homeowners and businesses to the Baltimore County community.

"It's building on those assets," Menzer said. "And it's accentuating what Tradepoint and the community need in moving forward, which is to market the property to the broadest possible audience."

Good branding aims to capture layered messages in a bold yet simple form, one local marketing executive said. Howe Burch, president of the Baltimore marketing and advertising firm TBC, said Tradepoint Atlantic has succeeded.

The words "Sparrows Point" have several connotations, Burch said, and not all of them are pleasing or helpful on a changed economic landscape.

Though it was once the world's largest steel mill, employing tens of thousands of workers, to many it now evokes little more than the loss of jobs.

"The name 'Sparrows Point' is symbolic, frankly, of a time gone by, not to mention industrial decline," Burch said. "And a 'terminal' is where you used to go to catch the bus. The name sounds like a specific single location, but beyond that, the words have no meaning."

The new name, he said, suggests a pathway to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond, appropriate for a company that aims, in its words, to become "a global leader in supply-chain logistics, transportation, distribution and manufacturing operations."

"'Tradepoint Atlantic' has a certain bigness to it, a romantic quality from a global perspective," Burch said. "It says they're looking ahead and not behind."

That's good branding for a project that company officials say will end up creating as many as 10,000 jobs.

Crandell called that prospect a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for an economic renaissance.

The company now known as Tradepoint Atlantic, a joint venture of the local firm Redwood Capital Investments and the Chicago-based liquidation and redevelopment firm Hilco, bought the mill property for $110 million in September 2014.

The firm entered agreements with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up contamination on the site from the years of steelmaking. The company has pledged to spend at least $48 million on cleanup on the land and gave $3 million to the EPA to address pollution in the water surrounding the property.

Bill Barry, a retired director of labor studies on the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, has written extensively about Sparrows Point. He is working with others to get a historic marker placed on the site and to start a museum.

Much as he loved the place and the way of life it made possible, he said, the site's future is more important.

"People are interested in the memories, but I doubt the name is a big concern," he said. "What they want to know is, how will that site be used to employ people?"

In Dundalk, though, even many people who are pulling for the project were feeling ambivalent.

Kellner said he hoped to organize fellow retirees and meet with company officials about the changes.

Jean Wilker, a lifelong Dundalk resident, said the firm has "many good ideas" — but she'd have preferred it kept its more historic name.

"Sparrows Point was global, when you think about it" said Wilker, president of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society. "They were the biggest steel company in the world at one time. Their name was known worldwide.

"My personal opinion is that I'd prefer they keep calling it Sparrows Point Terminal. But it's their company, not mine."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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