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Some businesses left, others never lost hope during mill’s idling

p01 us steelThe fate of U.S. Steel’s local plant has loomed large over Granite City the last two years. Associated Press file photoBy DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    GRANITE CITY — A business community that has lived on the edge the last two years waiting for the return of its largest employer is experiencing a sense of calm these days.
    And yet, the anticipated callback or hiring of 500 workers at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works is only part of a big picture. The rest of the community coped best it could, but the idling of workers has been a struggle, said Rosemarie Brown, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Southwestern Madison County.
    “To be honest with you, it was devastating for business. The announcement was made in December (2015). The following year in November I reported to the board that we had lost 26 members. They had closed their doors within that one year,” Brown said.
    Some businesses dealt directly with U.S. Steel as suppliers and vendors. Others were businesses that were simply affected when workers left.
    “These guys go to lunch, they go to dinner. They buy their kids stuff before they go home. People just didn’t have the income. It was devastating for this community. It was devastating for this chamber,” she said. “It was the breath and life of this community, truth be known.”
    Business, though, is coming back and not just because of the steel news. Brown said the town has “so many processors, that it really saved us.”
    One Madison business, Custom Steel Processing, is expanding and investing $29 million in a new building, she said.
    Another business, Icon Mechanical in Granite City, is doing well, she said.
    “That’s the thing: Nobody has given up. Did we hurt? Boy, did we hurt. But nobody gave up,” she said.

    Twenty-five years ago, a group of Southwestern Illinois supporters pursued a novel idea. Wanting to draw attention to the area as a destination to live, work and do business, they came up with a marketing campaign that essentially adopted a new name for the Metro East.
    Their slogan was: “East County … If You Only Knew.”
    The backlash was fairly immediate. Land of Lincoln locals who didn’t want to be associated with St. Louis and its West, South and North counties, had little use for such an idea. And the St. Louis business community and news media remained skeptical.
    Eventually, the effort was abandoned, a victim of lack of interest, more important events and historic tides. “East County” rode in with the Great Flood of ’93. And eventually ebbed back into the landscape.
    Still, two and a half decades later, many people remember the campaign and believe it helped bring attention to Metro East at an important time. The area, supporters say, has enjoyed some of its most robust growth in the period since the campaign sank. Highways were built, business parks boomed, an air base was rescued. The population represented by Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties increased from 534,512 in 1990 to an estimated 562,004 in 2017. Many people and companies from the St. Louis side have been attracted by the wide, open spaces on this side of the river.
    Some say growth was bound to happen; others say the campaign sped things along by planting the idea that Metro East was open for business.
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    Even before it had an official name, the idea for a campaign was first advanced by public relations professional James Grandone, an Alton native who said he had grown tired of trying to explain his Illinois roots to less-than-interested St. Louisans, many of them his work colleagues.
    “There were a half million people over here and it was like nobody noticed across the river,” said Grandone, who today lives and works in Edwardsville.
    In 1991, he began contacting Southwestern Illinois business, education and civic leaders to discuss what he felt was the urgent need to create a positive image and to change mistaken perceptions.
    “The urgency was partly due to my own embarrassment in people's reaction when I told them where I lived, as well as the clear opportunity to make money turning a negative into a positive. Mostly, it was due to my good fortune in being very familiar with both sides of the Mississippi River,” Grandone wrote years later, in a reflection piece about the events.
    He had lived in St. Louis for years and knew many prominent businessmen there from various campaigns he’d worked. Most people, he said, knew nothing about Southwestern Illinois or based their idea on crime reports they’d seen on television. Nothing, he said, served as a “counterbalance” to the negative image.
    Seeking some backing for his idea, Grandone began meeting with a who’s who of local leaders to get their opinions. Part of the long list included Ralph Korte of Korte Construction, Al Kerth with Civic Progress, and Gary Berkley, the publisher of the Belleville News-Democrat. Businessmen, real estate agents, organizational representatives, the university chancellor — all of them thought a comprehensive marketing effort for Southwestern Illinois targeting St. Louis and St. Louis County was needed.
    “Every one of them recognized that Illinois had as much if not more to offer to businesses and developers” than St. Louis, he wrote. Metro East was “underdeveloped given its proximity to a major city and its amenities.”
    The problem was money — or lack of same. A good marketing campaign was probably going to be expensive, and the economy at the time — President Clinton’s first year in office — wasn’t all that great.
    An avenue to advance the idea opened for Grandone, who at the time was general manager of Marketing Mix in Clayton, Mo., when he wrote an unsolicited letter about a campaign to Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a nonprofit economic development corporation representing primarily Madison and St. Clair counties.

    Opioids are threatening the lives and livelihoods of the local workforce like never before, and leaders agree they must work together to address the crisis.
    That was the message of a recent presentation at OSF Saint Anthony’s Health Center, where more than 50 health care, law enforcement, civic and business professionals and employers gathered to talk over solutions.
    The statistics are frightening:

  •     Since 1999, the amount of opioids prescribed for pain and sold in the U.S. has quadrupled.
  •     In 2013, providers wrote close to a quarter-billion prescriptions for opioids — enough for every adult in the U.S. to have his or her own bottle of pills.
  •     64,070 died of drug overdoses in 2016, more than any year on record. Approximately, three-fourths of all these drug overdose deaths are now caused by opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
  •     The use of pain killers in Madison County in 2015 was 126 pills per man, woman and child.

    Ajay Pathak, president and CEO of OSF Saint Anthony’s puts the issue in context.
    “It’s probably the most significant public health and public safety challenge that we’re fighting in Illinois today. I read somewhere that by 2020, the majority of deaths of people under 50 in our state will be related to the opioid epidemic. That is really staggering.”
    The hospital is holding a series of luncheons targeting health-care issues, and this one stirred the interest of attendees, several of whom commented that they would like to be more involved.
    “We hope this is the starting point to foster more discussion,” Pathak said. “Ultimately the crisis that we find ourselves in today was not created by one or two situations. It’s a multitude of factors that have come together to create this crisis and epidemic.”
    OSF HealthCare, the parent organization of Saint Anthony’s, has incorporated the opioid issue as a key part of its long-range plan, he said, targeting prevention, treatment, education, and working with the community more closely on current and untapped resources.
    The hospital is partnering with Alton Memorial Hospital on a HOPE Task Force — for Hospital Opioid Engagement. Officials have been meeting on a quarterly basis to discuss their procedures.
    OSF recently rolled out a drug-takeback program, adding a lockbox at the hospital, Pathak said.
    Addressing a variety of topics were three authorities from OSF Saint Anthony’s — Dr. Dennis Sands, chief medical officer; Suzanne Ringhausen, manager of Psychological Services and Employee Assistance; and Matthew Cary, lead nurse practitioner in the Emergency Department.
    Opioids include painkillers such as morphine, methadone, Buprenorphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Heroin is also an opioid and it is illegal. Opioid drugs sold under brand names include: OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan and Demerol among others.
    Sands said the pace of prescription rates parallels the increase in addiction. The amount of pain really hasn’t changed, so prescribing more narcotics is not the answer, he said.
    Pharmaceutical companies have overproduced the pills and were not forthcoming about their addictive nature, he said.
    The U.S., which makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, represents more than 80 percent of opioid consumption on the planet, he said.
    Most of the overdoses are from of opioids like heroin and fentanyl, he said.
    Often, illegal opioids are laced with other drugs — and the user is unaware. Heroin, for instance, is often laced with fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine. Most resultant deaths are accidental, Sands said.
    The number of fatalities in Madison County has stayed steadily high, he said. Last year, there were 85 such deaths. So far this year, at his last check with the coroner, there were already 16, Sands said.
    The dangers of heroin use, of course, have been widely reported. There is the potential for immediate addiction. Brain receptors are changed upon the first use of the drug, Sands said, making recovery so much more difficult.


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    ALTON – Simmons Hanly Conroy, one of the nation’s largest mass torts firms, is pleased to announce the firm has renewed its annual $100,000 sponsorship of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, also supporting the ADAO’s 14th Annual International Asbestos Awareness and Prevention Conference. The firm is the longest consecutive sponsor of the conference and has been a platinum sponsor for the past seven years.