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Ravenswood eyes the road to recovery

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - With union workers back in action at Constellium Rolled Products in Ravenswood, Jackson County business leaders hope the local economy is on the mend.

The 700 members of United Steelworkers Local 5668 had been on strike since Aug. 5. The impasse came to an end last Wednesday, when workers approved a new five-year contract with the company.

Union employees resumed their normal shift work at 7 a.m. Monday, but the nearly seven-week labor dispute took its toll on morale in Jackson County. Many small, locally owned businesses suffered deep losses during the strike.

"Ravenswood has faced pretty much a perfect storm from a financial perspective," said Robert Grimmett, who runs the Robert Mason office supply store in Ravenswood's shopping plaza.

Grimmett has been in business since 1996. He admits the community faces a lot of economic challenges, including an aging population that is more reliant on fixed sources of income.

The loss of 650 good-paying manufacturing jobs caused by the 2009 shutdown of the Century Aluminum plant dealt a heavy blow to the economy. When Constellium workers hit the picket lines, the effect on local businesses was just as severe.  

"It's been very difficult for the small, independent businesses of Ravenswood to survive this hostile financial environment," Grimmett said.

Business owners said they could tell the strike was beginning to affect workers and their families, too.

"Those guys were out just long enough to start feeling the hurt," said Mark Lemley, owner of Jackson County Pawn. "After six weeks, I think they were starting to feel the pinch."

Ravenswood Insurance Centre President Teresa Thacker said many people were starting to get behind on their bills.

"We have seen an increase of late payments and several policies getting close to cancellation status during the strike," Thacker said.

The local union held fundraisers to help workers pay some bills.

Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle said that helped workers keep their utilities on, but he said families still cut back on spending. That hurt other local businesses, and caused more people to cut back.

"People had less money to spend in stores and restaurants; it did affect them," Ihle said.

Thacker said she continued writing insurance policies but could see consumers were buying less.

"We have seen a decrease in the purchase of new vehicles," she said.

Grimmett said local business owners could go hours at a time during the strike without seeing anyone in their stores.

"Business is extremely sporadic," he said. "It's really been very difficult figuring how to manage inventory and cash flow, while at the same time keeping all of your taxes and bills paid - it's been very, very difficult."

A sense of relief

The mayor said the situation hit bottom two weeks ago when union leaders decided not to vote on the company's final offer.

"People were nervous, anxious and frustrated that they couldn't vote," Ihle said.

International union leadership and state political leaders eventually stepped in to force a vote last Wednesday. The union's rank-and-file members approved the company's offer.

Community reaction was instantaneous.

"Almost immediately we noticed an increase in a positive attitude in the community, just as soon as the news broke," Grimmett said.

"The mood really is one of relief," Ihle said. "Everyone's glad it's over."

Now community leaders are focusing on getting the local economy going again.

While he said the economy still has a way to go, Grimmett said the positive news last week has already made a difference.  

"It begins with that change of attitude to spur demand, and then hopefully we can build from that," he said.

Jessica Cozart opened Little Rascals Consignment, which buys and sells quality used children's clothes and toys, in downtown Ravenswood in June. She said business was slow at first but seemed to pick up in recent days.

"I'm noticing a little more traffic coming through the store," Cozart said. "I really think that business will pick back up for everyone now that the strike is over."

Local retailers are hoping to benefit from the new Constellium contract.

Workers will receive $7,500 up-front bonuses in return for ratifying the agreement.

Constellium spokeswoman Laura Prisc couldn't comment on when those bonuses would be paid, but workers have said they expect the checks within two weeks.

The bonuses could amount to a nearly $5.3 million stimulus for the local economy.

"That's a shot in the arm right there," Ihle said.

Local retailers hope the workers will spend the money wisely.  

"I just hope they don't take it and go blow it all at Cabela's," Lemley said.

Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Program Manager Missy Spangler said she's been pushing a "buy local" message.

"I hope and encourage the workers to spend the money locally, as we have so much to offer in our community," Spangler said.

She said county businesses have continued to support local programs and charities, even in tough times. She hopes if the plant workers buy locally, storeowners can offset some of the business they lost during the strike.

"A smaller community is easily effected by these fluctuations in job changes, so it is important for the success of all - the local businesses, as well as the community - to stay supportive of one another," Spangler said.  

Growing confidence

Leaders say the length of the Constellium contract will help stabilize the economy.

"I believe the five-year contract provides a strong foundation on which Constellium can continue to build their operations in Jackson County," said Mark Whitley, director of the Jackson County Development Authority.

Ihle said being able to tell potential business investors that the county's largest employer will be stable for at least five more years will give them confidence to open businesses in the area.

"Having those jobs and longer-term economic security will make it easier for us to go out and recruit businesses to fill these buildings downtown," he said. "Whether it's someone that's looking to put in a grocery store or restaurant, we can say, 'Hey we've got these jobs here and they're going to be here.' "

Officials also are anxiously awaiting the state Public Service Commission's decision on Century Aluminum's proposed special power rate.

Century officials have said a flexible power rate would help them manage swings in the aluminum market and let them restart their Ravenswood plant. That could generate more than 470 manufacturing jobs.

The PSC's decision is expected this week.

Grimmett said the combination of Constellium workers going back to work and the addition of hundreds of jobs at Century could turn things around for the entire region.

"I am optimistic that if we can do this with Constellium, and we can get Century going, we will be able to bring people in and improve the demographics of the mid-Ohio Valley enough to get things really going," he said.

Whitley also has high hopes.

He recently traveled with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on a trade mission to Japan to seek business opportunities. He said he had been working with several companies to entice investment before, during and after the Constellium strike.

Whitley said recent spikes in aluminum prices, along with new opportunities developing at local auto parts supplier K.S. of West Virginia and plastics recycler Star Plastics, hold a lot of promise for the local economy.

"Jackson County's economy is growing stronger with incredible opportunities in the near future," Whitley said. "With the projects we are working hard on, Jackson County could conceivably have one of the best economies in West Virginia and the tri-state region."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. 


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