GRANITE CITY — The altar and pipe organ have been removed from the old church in downtown Granite City, and the 1970s-era carpet has been replaced with paneled flooring.
Where the pipe organ once was, there’s now a stage where up-and-coming bands will play next year, and podcasters will hold live tapings. Where the altar was, there is a VIP seating area. Garage-style doors have been installed in two of the brick walls so that when the weather’s decent, people will filter easily between the events inside, the food trucks in the square, and bocce ball matches on the patio.
But the chandeliers and stained glass windows were left alone.
“We’ve tried to leave some odes to the past,” said Michael Parkinson, the mayor of Granite City.
The conversion of the Niedringhaus United Methodist Church into an entertainment venue called “The Mill” is one of a handful of economic development projects the city has been quietly advancing, as its business and government leaders work to push Granite City’s image beyond what it’s long been known as: a steel town, home to the sprawling Granite City Works.
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Just 7 miles northeast of downtown St. Louis, the Illinois city is home to 27,000 people — down from 33,000 in 1990.
This year U.S. Steel announced plans to sell a large portion of the mill that has anchored the city’s economy, in a deal that is expected to reduce the plant’s workforce by two-thirds.
Parkinson views the reduction as an issue for the region, not just his city. The mill has 1,500 employees. Only about 300 people who work for the mill live in the 62040 ZIP code, Parkinson said, where Granite City, Pontoon Beach and Mitchell are located.
“There will be a bite from it,” Parkinson said. But, he added, “Granite City has moved past being a town that’s just dependent on U.S. Steel as an employer.”
Officials have been working to fill once-vacant commercial buildings, and foster businesses and event spaces downtown in the hopes of drawing people and jobs to the area in industries beyond manufacturing.
The purchase and renovation of the church will mark about a $3 million investment, Parkinson said, which comes from the city’s downtown tax increment finance district.
On a recent afternoon on Nameoki Road, one of the main corridors through the city, a construction crew was renovating a former K-mart into a showroom for a furniture store. The business will eventually benefit from a localized sales tax incentive.
In the next building over, workers were fixing up a space formerly occupied by Shop ‘n Save, left vacant when the grocer exited the St. Louis region in 2018. Part of that building will become an Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, city officials said, and another part will be occupied by Dollar Tree and Family Dollar.
Parkinson, who took office in 2021 after two decades working for the Granite City Police Department, acknowledged that the new retail stores won’t necessarily become the city’s large “bread and butter” employers like the steel mill or the hospital. But the furniture store will need salespeople. Ollie’s will need cashiers and stockers.
He believes that some farmland along Route 3 can be developed into industrial and warehousing space.
As Parkinson drove down Nameoki Road with Cathy Hamilton, the city’s economic development director, Hamilton gestured to now-vacant buildings that will soon be home to the new discount retailers.
“There’s one domino,” she said. “There’s another.”
That afternoon, across the park from the Methodist church downtown, customers began arriving at the bar, Tinseltown, that opened in November 2021. Owner Emily Gavilsky was busy making vanilla chai masala simple syrup for cocktails, and the kitchen still smelled of the cayenne cinnamon simple syrup she’d made earlier that day.
Gavilsky, 35, has lived most of her life in Granite City. She opened Tinseltown in the former First National bank building downtown, originally as a six-week pop-up.
She hopes the city can become a place where people come to spend their whole evening — and she thinks that’s beginning to happen. Customers eat dinner at restaurants nearby before stopping by Tinseltown, and then end the night at the Prohibition-themed speakeasy next door.
“We don’t want people to come once, and have one drink and leave,” she said.
Brenda Whitaker, who runs the speakeasy, worked for 15 years at the steel mill. She opened her first business, the Garden Gate Tea Room, in 2000. At the time, she was still working “midnights” — the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift — as a coiler operator at the mill, and juggled the two jobs for two years until she was sure the tea room could survive.
In the past three years she’s opened a movie theater and a podcast studio in a space that adjoins the tea room. She’s renovating a board game café and diner in the space next to it.
Whitaker has lived in Granite City her whole life, and remembers when it was a retail destination. If people needed new clothes or shoes, they went to brick-and-mortar stores downtown. But that was another time, she said, and in the age of e-commerce, the city needs to adapt.
“We have to rethink things,” she said. “Granite City becomes a place where you do things. You give people places to go, and things to do.”
Annika Merrilees • 314-340-8528 @annie3mer on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org