Sparrows Point: Planning A Rebirth

Feb 9, 2015

The Star of Bethlehem used to sit atop the L Blast furnace. It was saved and developers are deciding what to do with it.
Credit John Lee for wypr

Sparrows Point was once home to the largest steel mill in the world.  Today, it's home to abandoned and torn down buildings, environmental contamination and vegetation run amuck. But there is a new plan to bring back the former home of Bethlehem Steel known simply as The Point.

Aaron Tomarchio, Vice President of Operations for Sparrows Point Terminal, LLC, the company that is redeveloping the 3,100 acre site, says the face of Sparrows Point is changing every day. "I know a lot of the workers who are here on site managing the demolition of the site were also Bethlehem Steel workers," he said. "And I think they, themselves, are starting to see the transformation in a very meaningful way."

There’s been no bigger, louder symbol of that transformation than the implosion of the huge L blast furnace on January 28. But on a tour of the property, you can see the transformation on a smaller scale. Crews are repaving old roads and tearing down old buildings. Workers are gathering all kinds of scrap and putting them in piles to be hauled away.  Still, Tomarchio says, this will take a while.  "Five years is a good benchmark to be able to look back and see jobs on site,” he said. “You can see companies having located and built facilities here."

Until then, Sparrows Point Terminal LLC is sinking a lot of money into this project. Tomarchio says it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the purchase price because it was a complicated deal.  But the Baltimore Business Journal put the purchase price at $110 million.

Then there’s the environmental clean-up. The company has committed $48 million to that, and the number could increase. Yet company officials say it’s worth it. Sparrows Point is a prime spot on the East Coast for commerce, with a deep water port, rail lines that run through the property and easy access to interstate highways. Baltimore County Councilman Todd Crandell, who represents the area, says the “opportunity for us as a district and for Baltimore County and the whole region is just huge.” “There is no initiative like this in the country,” he said.

While much of what is on The Point has to go, some of it can remain. Some buildings can be renovated. The foundations of others are so strong they can be used for new buildings. The massive ore pier, where ships once tied up to unload iron ore, is still in use.

One recent day, workers unloaded steel slabs from a ship docked at the pier. Tomarchio says that’s a sign that even today, there is economic life at Sparrows Point. “Bethlehem Steel overbuilt many things, and this ore pier is probably an example of the things where they probably over engineered and overbuilt,” he said. “But it’s a great asset to the site right now."

There's something else the company wants to save: the history. The Star of Bethlehem that used to adorn the top of the L blast furnace now sits in a parking lot while they figure out where to put it. Graham Watson, the site operations manager for Sparrows Point Terminal LLC, is finding and saving documents like technical drawings. "You never know what is going to be of interest to someone a generation from now," he said.  "And we want that to be present so someone can see this is what manufacturing was through approximately 130 years of steel making at this site."

But all of those years of steel making contaminated much of the land and water at Sparrows Point and that will be the subject of the next installment: the cleanup.

Full Series.