It went from a workforce of more than 10,000 in its glory years to a ghostly operation of just a few hundred workers in the mid-70’s. But Pueblo steel, once the signature industry of Colorado’s ‘town with broad shoulders,’ is making a comeback and not in a quiet way. Evraz Steel, a Russian-owned company and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of steel, is betting big on Pueblo.
Evraz has committed to a $500 million expansion at the Pueblo plant that includes construction of a $250 million, 240-megawatt solar plant. The Bighorn Solar project will be built on land owned by Evraz with Xcel buying the electricity manufactured by the plant. Lightsource BP, a British company that specializes in solar and storage projects, will build it. The clean, renewable energy will fuel the Evraz operation. Evraz is one of Xcel’s premier customers in Colorado.
The project has been in the works for a couple of years, said Jeff Shaw, President of the Pueblo Economic Development Commission. Beyond the Evraz, Lighthouse BP and Xcel side of the equation, the state of Colorado and Pueblo were also key players in getting the deal signed and sealed. “It’s been a long, enjoyable process,” said Shaw, looking back to when talks began.
Tying things together took legislation, incentives, and a lot of hard work, said Pueblo native, Shaw. “Three years ago, the state passed legislation that Evraz was able to use,” he said. The legislation, spearheaded by Pueblo lawmakers Leroy Garcia and Danya Esgar, provides tax credits to businesses willing to invest at least $100 million in the state. Pueblo kicked in with a half-cent tax increase, incentives, including the promise of $1 million in retraining for workers at Pueblo Community College.
The first stages of the build---the clean-up of a long vacant portion of the mill, have already begun. Actual “shovels-in-the-ground,” said Shaw, for the solar-powered rail mill should begin sometime soon.
The Evraz operation, including the solar-powered rail mill will employ approximately a thousand full-time workers at an average annual salary of $65,000. The steel maker currently employs around 800 workers.
The ‘mill,’ the term locals once used for the plant that long ago belched dirty black smoke into the air, will be as clean as any heavy industry can be. It will provide rail for tracks in the U.S. as well as track for the far more sophisticated high-speed rail systems that serve transportation systems around the world. But more importantly, it will secure a financial base for the town once called “the Pittsburgh of the West.”
Good paying jobs like those that Evraz will bring to Pueblo also mean the potential for luring workers from other places to the city. It means growth---economic and population. Can Pueblo accommodate newcomers? “Hypothetically, yes,” said Shaw. “PEDCO is looking strategically at how to increase our capacity for homes. Housing supplies are a little bit short,” he said. But the cost of living in Pueblo is lower than the more densely populated places along the Front Range. That might makes facing this challenge a bit easier.
Steel has been in the city’s blood since 1881 when the then CF&I---Colorado Fuel and Iron---began operations. It lured workers from all over the country and the world. Immigrant labor fueled its growth. It manufactured various steel products from rails to wire and shipped worldwide. More importantly, the mill sustained generations of Puebloans through good times and bad. The planned expansion of Evraz, it is hoped, will do the same for future generations of Puebloans.
“We’re more than pleased,” said Rod Slyhoff, President of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. “This is going to be a tremendous boon to Pueblo and our economy.”