WEIRTON, W.Va. − Carol Hrabovsky, owner of one of the few remaining bars on Main Street in this former steel town, is still trying to catch up from the pandemic. Business has been slow while expenses are climbing at Irish Pub, a dimly lit dive with a green neon glow.
Her food order costs have doubled. Bacon has skyrocketed to $70 from $30, making it more expensive to make a menu of “bacon-wrapped tater tots,” BLTs and club sandwiches.
“I have to raise my prices. And I hate to have to do that,” she said after a recent lunch shift.
Hrabovsky, 58, hopes her bar will get a jolt from a next-generation battery plant under construction up the street on the former Weirton Steel complex along the Ohio River. It’s one of 272 clean-energy projects, representing $278 billion in private investments, planned so far using financial incentives from President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Yet, even as she crosses her fingers that an influx in battery workers will allow her to begin serving breakfast, Hrabovsky is dismissive of the president’s economic agenda.
“I don’t like anything about Bidenomics,” she said. “Not one bit.”
Nearly 70% of Americans said the economy is getting worse, while only 22% said it is improving, according to an exclusive poll this week from the Suffolk University Sawyer Business School and USA TODAY that reveals major concerns about the economy’s health and the cost of living.
Only 34% of Americans said they approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, compared to 59% who disapprove.
For months, Biden has touted an economy on the rebound, pointing to a robust jobs market, unemployment at a 50-year low and inflation that has moderated over the past year. He’s labeled his economic agenda “Bidenomics,” embracing a mantra aimed squarely at the middle class: building the economy from “bottom up and middle out.”
Biden heralds Weirton’s new battery plant in speeches, saying it shows that help is on the way through the trillions of dollars from his “Investing in America” agenda.
Residents in Weirton – a town of 18,000 sandwiched between Ohio and Pennsylvania in West Virginia’s northern panhandle – view the promise of 750 jobs from the battery plant as huge news but not the answer to their most immediate challenges.
“I feel sorry for the young people that have kids in our area,” said Keith Kruger, finishing a beer at Irish Pub and feeling lucky to have worked in steel in Weirton, now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs, for 46 years. “They can’t even afford to buy a house now. Whatever they got in an increase in wages is getting sucked out by inflation.”
Biden takes a risk with investments in Republican hotspots
Biden has staked enormous political capital on his pitch to turn towns like Weirton into hotbeds for a new green economy. Experts say targeted programs in major funding bills Biden has pushed through Congress could help address regional divides and uneven economic progress across the nation.
Geographic income inequality rose more than 40% between 1980 and 2021, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, as economic vitality became more concentrated in well-educated, tech-oriented areas of the country while factory jobs moved overseas.
“I think some in the administration view this as an important experiment to see if material economic gains in struggling places can tamp down backlash politics. And I think that’s an interesting experiment,” said Mark Muro, an expert on regional economies at the Brookings Institution. “But I think it’s not the main reason any of this is being done. The real concern is that levels of geographical divergence reached an emergency level in the last decade.”
Salaries at the future Form Energy plant are projected to start at $62,937.
“To reach communities too often left behind … that’s the focus,” Biden said in August on the one-year anniversary of signing the Inflation Reduction Act.
It’s a political gamble for Biden since the biggest payoffs might not happen for years or even decades. Many areas benefiting from clean-energy projects, including Weirton, are deeply red politically and backed former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
In a troubling sign for the White House, people in Weirton don’t connect the battery plant with Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
“I personally don’t give him any credit at all,” said Mayor Harold E. “Bubba” Miller who, like most of Weirton’s mayors, once worked for Weirton Steel.
Enzo Fracasso, a city councilman who worked at Weirton Steel for 45 years, hailed the battery plant as a potential “anchor” for future businesses. “I think it’s going to revitalize this area, not just Weirton, but the surrounding areas. Because along with that plant, there will be ancillary products that need to be supplied to that plant.”
Yet he and other city leaders give more credit to the West Virginia state government led by Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
“Actually, I’ve never heard anybody say anything about Biden and Form Energy,” Fracasso said.
Form Energy planned to build a factory regardless of the federal incentives, said co-founder and CEO Mateo Jaramillo. But the incentives helped the company get better terms from investors because of the reduced risk. That freed up cash so the company could put down more money alongside matching funds from the state to build out the site. Weirton was vying with hundreds of other sites across 16 states.
“This was not the cheapest, fastest site,” Jaramillo said. “But I think you can make a strong argument that it was the most important site to revitalize. And so that’s why the state of West Virginia stepped up.”
Michael Adams, the city manager, said the announcement of the plant was “bombshell news.”
“It was joyous, I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “One of my friends said that’s about the best news we’ve had in about 50 years.”
Cutting-edge batteries that will be made in Weirton can store electricity for days, making renewable power generated from wind, water and the sun more reliably available.
Adams joked that Weirton is a good place to make batteries that discharge and store electricity by converting iron to rust and back again. “We have plenty of rust here,” he said.
‘Hopefully this will bring the kids back,’ retired steel worker says
It’s been decades since Weirton Steel – once West Virginia’s largest private employer and taxpayer – delivered fat paychecks that financed mortgages, put children through college, and supported dozens of businesses.
Parts of the old steel mill still stretch along Main Street, hulking over the town. But gone are the dozens of bars, jewelry stores, restaurants and other businesses that used to line the street.
Turn right out the Irish Pub’s front door and a quick walk tells the story.
Empire Szechuan, closed. Roc n Franni’s bar, boarded up in 2017. The eye doctor is still in business, and the liquor store.
In May, the surviving tin mill operation, owned by Cleveland-Cliffs announced 300 of the fewer than 1,000 remaining steel workers would be laid off. At its peak, Weirton Steel employed 13,000 people.
“There’s been downsizing of the mill, it seems like, my entire career,” said Mark Glyptis, president of United Steelworkers local chapter for the past 31 years.
Italian, Greek, Polish and other immigrants, along with Black families, flocked to Weirton a century ago for the good pay. Weirton Steel became the largest steel plate mill in the world. During World War II it produced materials for the atom bomb and howitzer shells.
The graphite in the air that dirtied the white shirts of the Catholic school boys as they played marbles at recess is a memory, as is the explanation given to those wondering about the sparkly dust: “That’s money,” steel workers said.
“Times were good for us,” said Ray Gajtka, 71, who worked as an engineer for 28 years at the mill, as he drank coffee with four other retired workers at Tudor’s Biscuit World. “It was a family mill. Everybody knew each other. Everybody knew their kids. It was one big happy family.”
Bill Stone, 84, is old enough to remember the old days, too. He worked in the steel mill for 35 years.
“We got a nice big playground,” Stone said of his neighborhood. But there are no children to play on it.
The last blast furnace that turned the sky orange over Weirton shut two decades ago because of overseas competition. Over the years, Weirton aged as young families, including Gajtka’s children, moved away for better jobs.
“The most thriving businesses in this area are the funeral homes,” said Paul Barnabei, 70, who worked at Weirton Steel for 31 years. He said the battery plant could be a good thing. “But let’s wait and see.”
In Weirton, people are waiting for a new battery plant. It won’t bring back the steel mill’s glory days. But it might bring back the kids.
Reach Maureen Groppe on X @mgroppe and Joey Garrison @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How is Bidenomics playing in steel country? With plenty of skepticism.
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