GIRARD - Motorists driving along U.S. 422 in Girard are seeing some unusual sights these days.
Like a hulking green-primered steel skeleton rising above dark and dirty steel mill buildings of a bygone era.
Like so many vehicles leaving and entering the highway that police have to direct traffic at shift change.
Trucks bring construction workers, materials into V-M Star
Like five construction cranes lifting giant steel beams to build the biggest manufacturing facility the area has seen in nearly a half-century but with a modern focus on the environment.
What passersby are seeing is the area's new look of prosperity, due largely to a couple trillion cubic feet of natural gas buried deep underground and V&M Star's $650 million investment in a new pipe mill to help get that gas out of the ground and into the nation's energy system.
For hundreds of ironworkers, carpenters and laborers, it's like an extended feast after a nearly three-year famine due to the Great Recession.
Tribune Chronicle / Larry Ringler
Construction workers from Trumbull County talk after finishing a day helping to build V&M Star’s high-tech pipe mill in Girard. From left are Chuck Bulick of Hartford, Robert Hill of Champion, Wendell Dansler of Warren and Neil Hagan of Warren.
"It's going great. We desperately needed the work," said Chuck Bulick, a Hartford resident and member of Laborers Local 935 in Warren.
Bulick and other union workers last week were busy putting in foundations, building wood frames and doing iron work for the project on Girard's south side.
Workers started on the project last July and expect to continue through the year. With families, house payments and car expenses, they welcomed the work after enduring three years of an economic drought.
Nearly 200 vehicles driven by construction workers every day jam new parking lots scraped out of weed-choked ground. Yellow buses pick up the workers and take them to the job site behind rusting buildings - Youngstown Sheet & Tube's former steel plate mill and Dempsey Steel's rolling and pickling line - still standing from the area's previous manufacturing golden age in the 20th century.
With the coming of spring, activity is increasing to the point that a second work shift was added Monday so piledrivers - workers running equipment that pounds giant steel beams 75 feet into the ground to support the structure and machinery - won't interfere with ironworkers, carpenters, electricians and others.
The site is so busy that a Girard police officer, such as Larry Neely, is assigned to direct traffic to help workers get onto U.S. 422 when leaving work.
Don Crane, president of Western Reserve Building & Construction Trades Council, estimated about 250 of his members are working, and the number continues to increase.
"At the peak, we should be somewhere around 800 workers," he said.
The number would double the 400 construction jobs that V&M officials estimated when they announced the project on Feb. 15, 2010.
Crane said a water treatment plant has been added, along with some modifications to the original plan.
If the number reaches 1,000 workers putting in 40 hours a week for a year, Crane said the project - the area's biggest manufacturing project since General Motors Co. built the Lordstown Complex in the mid-1960s - will inject $70 million in wages and benefits into the area's economy.
Girard Mayor James Melfi said the project "may be the greatest building time in the city's history."
He pointed to blue-tarped piles of steel and other building material stockpiled at the former Indalex aluminum extrusion plant that V&M has purchased for storage.
Land along both sides of U.S. 422 is being sold or marketed to companies that will set up supporting operations for V&M.
Girard will reap at least $3.4 million, including income taxes and a $400,000 payment by Youngstown to Girard's sewer fund, over 18 months when construction ends.
"We got $2.7 million in income tax for all of 2010," Melfi said.
Girard and Youngstown, which collaborated to land V&M, will split income tax 50-50 once production starts with about 350 workers, Melfi said.
The project differs from previous ones in a number of ways. One is something Crane called "kind of a first" in that the trusses are being erected with interior lights hanging down. He said normally electricians would run the wiring and lights after the trusses are in place, but the wiring was done with the steel on the ground to help speed the process and for safety.
Another is efforts to present an image drastically different from steelmaking's gritty image. V&M's French and German owners are focused on projecting an image of cleanliness that would have been unheard of in the days of Youngstown Sheet & Tube.
"The company is invested in both the appearance and cleanliness of the area, because it is good for our community and makes a favorable impression on visitors coming to V&M for business," V&M spokesman Vince Bevacqua said, noting the mission has led to the demolition and removal of several blighted and abandoned houses.
The cleaner image also helps the company recruit top professionals to work at the company, he added.
"They're sticklers for clean," Melfi said. "Their corporate image is not your grandfather's steel mill."