steel mill.jpg (copy)

The Georgetown steel mill, which has found a tentative buyer in London-based Liberty House Group, has been idled since August 2015. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

When Vikrant Sharma shows up at a closed steel mill, it's usually because the facility long ago sighed its last breath.

In Georgetown's case, though, his visit represented a new lease on life.

The sale of ArcelorMittal's mill along the Sampit River to London-based Liberty Hall Group, announced Friday, is largely the result of Sharma's insistence that the plant — idled since August 2015 — could be saved.

"I saw a couple of advantages," Sharma said of a visit he made to the Georgetown site last summer. "They had just recently shut down, none of the equipment was missing or had been cannibalized, and the workforce was still readily available."

Sharma's business — Sherman Steel of Pittsburgh — typically buys steel equipment piecemeal, either for resale, spare parts or scrap. In this case, Sharma took one look at the Georgetown plant and got on the phone to his friends at Liberty's headquarters.

"They've been in an expansion mode the last couple of years and they were looking for acquisitions in the United States," Sharma said, adding that his recommendation led to months of negotiations between the London steel firm and ArcelorMittal, which has owned the Georgetown plant in some form since 2004.

No sale price was announced, and plenty of details must be worked out. But Liberty's purchase could bring production back to the Georgetown mill by mid- to late-June, said James Sanderson, president of the United Steelworkers union's local office. It would be Liberty's first U.S. acquisition.

The plant had about 220 employees when it shut down and Sanderson said he thinks it could employ as many as 350 workers and contractors at full capacity. Typical production floor wages ranged from $60,000 to $80,000 a year before the most recent shutdown, he said.

"We are extremely grateful that Liberty House has decided to move forward with purchasing our steel mill here in Georgetown," Sanderson said Friday. "And we owe a debt of gratitude to Vikrant Sharma for coming here, seeing the condition of our plant and relaying that information to Liberty."

ArcelorMittal said in a statement early Friday that the sale of the 600,000-square-foot facility hinges on the two sides agreeing on final terms and the completion of due diligence by Liberty over the coming weeks.

"We are pleased to have an agreement in principle with Liberty House on the sale and restart of our former wire rod mill in Georgetown," John Brett, president and CEO of ArcelorMittal USA, said in the statement. "We have achieved our goal of identifying a purchaser with extensive steel experience and a commitment to returning this site to its steel-making capability."

Sanjeev Gupta, executive chairman of Liberty House, called the announcement "a landmark day for Georgetown and its residents."

"Our agreement in principle with ArcelorMittal opens the door to the eventual restoration of several hundred jobs, both directly and in the supply chain, and it gives this region’s economy a new industrial focus," Gupta said in a statement.

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville pre-empted the official news by announcing the proposed sale at a City Council meeting Thursday night. Scoville, who has been a proponent of redeveloping the roughly 60-acre mill site into a smokestack-less mix of professional and commercial businesses catering to residents and tourists, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The mayor told South Strand News that plans to rezone the site to accommodate a mixed-use vision — the result of brainstorming sessions held last year by the Urban Land Institute — will go forward. Such zoning, proposed by the city, would have a "grandfather clause" allowing a steel mill only if new ownership begins operations within one year.

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said it is too early to speculate about what impact a reopened steel mill could have on the adjacent Port of Georgetown. The mill once was the port's largest customer, accounting for almost three-fourths of the 1.5 million tons of cargo moved through the facility in 1996. Steel shipments tapered off in succeeding years and the mill's closure has put the port's future in doubt.

Friday's announcement comes a day after President Donald Trump launched a trade probe against China and other exporters of cheap steel into the U.S. market. China is accused of illegally subsidizing steel manufacturers who make far more product than the country can use and then dumping excess steel on foreign markets, undercutting prices charged by domestic manufacturers.

"Steel is critical to both our economy and our military," Trump said during a ceremony Thursday with executives from U.S. steelmakers. "This is not an area where we can afford to become dependent on foreign countries."

It's a message that resonates with Sanderson, who said he believes Trump's tough trade policies helped woo Liberty to the United States.

"I want to thank President Trump for making this possible," Sanderson said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that his stance on supporting American jobs has stopped the dumping of steel products into this country."

Sharma said he agrees that Trump's policies, including plans to boost infrastructure spending while using only American-made steel, has given the U.S. steel industry a jolt.

The Georgetown plant would be the second that Sharma has helped to save. In January, the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. mill in Mingo Junction, Ohio, which had been shuttered for eight years, said it will start making hot metal again. Sharma and his father, Sherman International Corp. CEO Om Sharma, helped broker a sale of that business to the private Acero Junction Inc.

"We’re confident that, with the right support from the community and authorities, we can make Georgetown and other U.S. steel plants competitive, profitable and sustainable," Gupta, the head of Liberty, said in a statement.

Sanderson said he hopes to invite Trump to attend a grand reopening when the Georgetown mill starts producing wire rods again in the coming months.

"Trump has sent the message loud and clear: He does not want to see our jobs go away," Sanderson said. "He wants to make American great again. By Liberty coming here, we're going to make Georgetown great again."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_