Centrally located along the banks of the Mississippi River in America’s heartland, Granite City, Illinois was ideally situated when the industrial revolution took off in the United States. Frederick and William Niedringhaus recognized the area’s potential and chose the site for the location of their company, which would grow to become Granite City Steel…
The brothers founded Granite City in 1896 to support their burgeoning steel-related businesses, carefully laying out a municipal plan to benefit both workers and industry. “Granite City is a great place to do business because our town was founded for the purpose of doing business, and to be a great place to live while you do business,” says Economic Development Director James B. Amos.
The city’s location remains ideal for industry. “We are a major transportation hub because we are on the Mississippi River. We have our own local port district.” Located just north of St. Louis, America’s Central Port is the most northerly ice-free port on the Mississippi River and the site of the river’s last lock. “So all Mississippi traffic goes through it. That is a major advantage for us.”
Located at the center of the nation’s intermodal freight transportation system, America’s Central Port enjoys direct access to rail and road as well as the river. “Three of the six major U.S. rail carriers literally come through Granite City, and all of them come through the region,” Mr. Amos reports. “We are also at the center of the country in terms of the interstate system. With the river, rail, and then the interstate system coming together all right here, that makes Granite City a great place to be.”
The heavy metals manufacturing cluster continues to dominate Granite City’s economy. The community’s largest employers have long been U.S. Steel and several ancillary companies. Although U.S. Steel underwent a temporary plant shutdown in late 2015, community leaders feel confident this setback will be short lived. “A big story locally is that U.S. Steel shut down their mill, but we believe this is only temporary, and they have increased again to about 500 workers already. Plus our other auxiliary steel-related companies here are still doing just fine.”
In addition to heavy metals production, Granite City enjoys a robust food processing industry and is home to multiple food processing plants. As the second most populated city in southern Illinois, Granite City has also become a healthcare hub and is the site of a regional hospital.
As a planned city, Granite City enjoys key lifestyle advantages. “We have a very walkable historic area in downtown. Public transportation, the library – everything is right next to each other.” Designed before the automobile came onto the scene, streets were laid out to accommodate heavy foot traffic and most amenities were placed in close proximity.
Residents and local leaders continue to invest in Granite City in order to maintain a high level of livability. “We are in the process of having a major revitalization in our downtown. We have invested a lot of energy in this.” Coming together as a community is commonplace in close-knit Granite City. “There is a lot of civic pride in our community,” Mr. Amos remarks. “It is a place where people really care about their community. [They] want to invest in our community.”
The community has just revamped Niedringhaus Avenue, the city’s main street, to make it even more walkable. New businesses are taking notice and setting up shop, including a pizza restaurant, a high-end eatery, and a coffee shop. A $10 million redevelopment of a historic YMCA building is next on the agenda. As one of downtown’s largest, most eye-catching buildings, the structure is an ideal location for a major revitalization initiative. Pending approval, the old YMCA will be transformed into 45 residential artist lofts.
These units would be ideal housing for the city’s growing art community. “The downtown is turning into a major arts district,” Mr. Amos reports. “We have a group of artists that have purchased virtually an entire block of our old downtown.” Throughout this Granite City Art and Design District (G-CADD), old buildings are being transformed into art studios, bringing together a wide range of creative talent. “All up and down the block there are different studios. And we also have [several] other significant art groups, including one that converted a former church into a live theatre. We are attracting a lot of creatives and the younger generation right now, and we believe that the converted YMCA will be a great place for them to live.”
In addition to revitalizing the downtown, Granite City is taking on a comprehensive strategic plan for economic development. “It looks at the five major areas most significant in our community that need to function together and thrive in order to have a vibrant economic growth – and also to just be a great place to live, because those are inexplicably tied together.” These five areas are Business Growth and Development; Housing, Neighborhood and Community Improvement; Education and Workforce; Entrepreneurship and Innovation; and Civic Pride. “These five areas are inextricably tied together,” Mr. Amos points out. “When we see advancements in one area, it helps promote advancements in other areas and if in one area we are really struggling, it affects what we are able to do in other areas.”
Teams of local leaders across a variety of professions co-lead each focal area. “There are a lot of people in our community across different age ranges that are really invested in our city and want to make it a great place to live for the next century and are doing a lot to make that happen. Some are in the business world, some in the education world, and some in the political world. They come together and work at implementing strategic goals at the community level. [There are] about a hundred people working together, which isn’t really [typical of] a lot of communities. We try to find ways to leverage our resources in the best direction and go in a strategic direction that is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. We take the expertise and resources that we have and put them together, flowing in the same direction.”
One important initiative is to make sure that locals possess the skills the city’s manufacturers need. “One major thing that we are working on here is making sure that at the high school level and the community college level we have, as much as possible, tied the vocational curriculum to the exact skill sets that are required for the industry clusters that are in our community, so that we can continue to expand those business clusters.”
Local leaders hope to continue attracting new manufacturers to Granite City by maintaining an ideal environment for industry. “We are able to tell other groups that want to come in and do business here that we have the workforce they are looking for,” Mr. Amos remarks. “We do want to continue to emphasize vocational skills and training and we are doing what we can to have a robust workforce for these kinds of jobs.”
After more than a century of manufacturing success, Granite City is well placed to continue being a center for industry. With an exciting economic development plan and an emerging arts district, the historic city is ready for the twenty first century economy, while simultaneously retaining the core features that have been its traditional strengths.