A showdown between the Cook County Forest Preserve District and what's soon to be the world's largest steelmaker threatens to scuttle plans for a $300-million expansion at a south suburban steel mill that could double its output and add 100 jobs.
International Steel Group Inc. (ISG) — which is being folded into Netherlands steel conglomerate Mittal Steel Co. — says it needs 21 acres next to its Riverdale mill to build a furnace to melt scrap metal.
The trouble is, that's Forest Preserve land.
ISG is offering to swap 24 acres of wooded property that it owns nearby for the 21 acres it wants from the Forest Preserve. But so far, the district hasn't shown much interest in ISG's offer.
Forest Preserve officials fear that approving the swap would give other companies a green light to pursue slices of the district's 68,000 acres.
"Historically, we've not engaged in these kinds of deals," says a district spokesman. "We have a land-use policy that severely limits what we can do with our land. I doubt very highly that this could ever happen."
Riverdale officials and other south suburban leaders, including U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Chicago, have been lobbying county officials to support the swap, arguing that the expansion is an opportunity to bring steel jobs and additional tax dollars to an area where thousands of jobs have evaporated in the past 15 years.
"If it means bringing economic development to a community, we should at least look at it," says County Commissioner Deborah Sims, whose district includes Riverdale. "To just say, 'We don't do land swaps' doesn't make sense."
FOR TOWN, MUCH TO LOSE
Without a solution, Riverdale leaders fear ISG will dismantle the plant and move it out of state or overseas. "That would be devastating to Riverdale," says Village Administrator William Cooper.
ISG declines to say what it will do if it can't reach a deal with the Forest Preserve.
The ISG plant is Riverdale's largest single property tax payer, accounting for 20% of its tax revenue. When the plant's previous owner, Acme Metals Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection in 1998, the village lost more than $4 million in taxes before Ohio-based ISG acquired the mill in 2002 for $65 million.
With ISG shareholders expected to approve the Mittal merger April 12, observers say there would be no shortage of sites for relocating the Riverdale operation. The new company will have mills throughout the world with a combined production of 60 million tons of steel a year.
The Riverdale mill, which was largely rebuilt by Acme in the late 1990s, is hemmed in on three sides by railroad tracks and other factories, leaving the Forest Preserve land on the mill's north side as the most likely spot for a furnace, which would require about 100 additional workers. That's on top of the 282 who already work at the plant.
Supporters of the expansion say the forest land eyed by ISG is inaccessible to the public and far from the picnic grove and golf range at the Whistler Woods preserve. Moreover, the wooded land offered to the district on the north bank of the Little Calumet River could have public access off 127th Street.
"They'd be getting more land and more valuable land," says Riverdale Mayor Zanovia Evans. "To us, it's a logical swap."