WARREN -They came Monday morning mostly in pairs, carrying clipboards, tape measures, auction house listings and notebooks.
Many said they were there, inside the silent, dark corridors that once housed a profitable Warren steel operation, looking for equipment they could use to help run their own businesses. Others acknowledged they were scrappers looking for items that could boost their bottom lines, and still others admitted they had come simply to calm their curiosity.
Hundreds turned out for Monday's inspection day before the four-day auction kicks off today on thousands of pieces of equipment inside the former RG Steel plant. The bidders' backgrounds and reasoning varied, but a common thread came to light as each described the sadness of the situation.
Tribune Chronicle photo / Brenda J. Linert
Hugh Brown of Beaver Excavating in Canton talks on a cell phone Monday while waiting for two others to arrive to help him inspect items that will be auctioned beginning today.
"It makes you feel like you are a vulture," said a man from a steel company that manufactures poles for highway signs. The man, who declined to give his name, said he and a friend had traveled 70 miles to check out equipment in the former RG Steel machine shop. "You feel sad for the people that don't have it anymore."
Standing near a row of more than a dozen heavy equipment vehicles, Jason Linkes of Pittsburgh's AMG Resources, said he and a colleague had come to see what type of scrap materials were available.
He knew too well how quickly mills like RG could take a downturn.
WHAT: Former RG Steel plant auction
WHERE: 1040 Pine Ave. S.E.
WHEN:?Tuesday through Friday
MORE INFO: Page 2B
"Knowing that just a couple years ago this mill was operational and now it's gone ..." his voice trailed off.
He shook his head knowingly as the story was relayed about promises from the new owners attempting to find an operator for the plant.
"My dad worked for J&L in the '80s. You never know," Linkes said. "But usually once they're gone, they're gone."
Jones & Laughlin, or J&L Steel, had operated the Aliquippa Works for years just outside of Pittsburgh before shuttering operations in the 1980s. Coincidentally, one of the men, Charles J. Betters, who purchased Warren's RG Steel mill out of bankruptcy in August, hails from Aliquippa. Shortly after the purchase last summer Betters had cited the demise of Aliquippa's steel industry as his reason for attempting to find an operator for the Warren mill.
"You don't have to tell me what the jobs mean. I get it,'' he said in August, noting he saw firsthand what the loss of steel jobs can do to a community. Betters and his partners have promised the bankruptcy court they won't sell equipment used in the steel production process, which includes the blast furnace and castors, until at least May.
On the property Monday, Al Greenawalt, the mill's superintendent of operations support, wasn't giving up hope on the mill's future. He maintained that the equipment being sold off was not necessary for steel production.
Still, there has been no word of a viable operator to take over production.
A former Warren man who worked in the mill when it operated as Republic Steel in the 1950s has said he is trying to organize an employee ownership group. Western Reserve Port Authority executive director Rose Ann DeLeon said in recent weeks that a company representing a private investor group had been in contact with her, but she had little information about the group.
Specifics of this week's sale listed on the websites of four auction houses working together on the project say the sale will include the "complete large capacity machine shop," "complete fabrication shop," "complete carpentry shop," "complete tractor maintenance shop," more than 1,000 new and used electric motors, three Cat backhoes, two Cat haul trucks, five Cat wheel loaders, forklifts, cranes, grinders, hand tools and much more.
Betters said the equipment being sold will help them to recoup some of their ongoing expenses in keeping the mill operational.
Smoking a cigarette just outside the mill's pipe shop, Ron Hodges of Fowler grimaced at the thought of the mill's future.
Hodges, who retired from Youngstown's Wean United, said he knows the effect of bankruptcy on good paying jobs. His company, too, went bankrupt in the 1990s, eventually closing its Youngstown and Warren locations.
"It's a shame," he said. "Another one bites the dust."