Renewed interest in the Port of Baltimore by major cargo handling firms has cheered some in the local maritime community who hope it represents an improvement in the beleaguered port's image.
So far this year, one major operator, Universal Maritime Services Corp., has set up shop in Baltimore and a local company, The Terminal Corp., has entered into a joint venture with a Canadian concern to expand forest product handling here.
And two southern companies, Ryan-Walsh and Cooper/T. Smith, are actively exploring the local market with an eye on moving in.
"I think they are aware of the compelling attractions of the Port of Baltimore," said Brendan "Bud" O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
Vital service companies for a port, stevedores hire longshoremen and handle cargo once it arrives. Currently, there are two major stevedores handling general, or non-bulk, cargo: ITO Corp. and Ceres Corp.
The failure of two other stevedores at Baltimore -- Maher and Clark-Maryland -- in the past two years was viewed as a symptom of the port's troubles. Not surprisingly, the interest of new stevedores has raised hopes that the port is rebounding.
"I think it is a result of the fact that there is a new spirit in the port and that permeates the whole service sector," said Anthony Chiarello, Universal's assistant vice president for the mid-Atlantic.
"When you have a port the size of Baltimore, there's definitely room for more than two stevedores," Chiarello said.
Universal plans to begin operations Oct. 1. It is widely believed that the company will take over the stevedoring of the port's largest ship line, Maersk Inc., which owns Universal. That work is now being performed by another Maersk subsidiary at the port, Maersk Container Service.
Chiarello said an announcement about Maersk's stevedoring business will be made soon, but he declined to say what it will be. Universal is also "very close" to signing some other accounts, he said. He declined to identify the potential customers, but said they are lines currently in the port.
Patrick Hall, vice president with the Mobile, Ala.-based Cooper/T. Smith Stevedoring, said his company has been exploring an entry into Baltimore and is seeking customers. He hopes a decision can be made on beginning operations before the end of the year.
"We're looking at the Baltimore area seriously, but to say we're coming would be premature ... I think you are a viable port, personally. I think there are some wrinkles to be worked out," Hall said.
The opening this week of the Seagirt Marine Terminal should prove a valuable draw for business, he said. Even though that terminal is operated by one state-appointed stevedore, it should buoy business throughout the port, he said.
"You are not anywhere near your capacity and as Hampton Roads fills up, I think steamship lines will begin moving there," Hall said. On the East coast, the company operates at Hampton Roads, Va., Wilmington and Morehead City, N.C., Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.
O'Malley said the port administration has also received serious inquiries from Ryan-Walsh, Inc., another stevedore based in Mobile. The company currently is concentrated in the South Atlantic and Gulf but also has operations in Hampton Roads. A spokeswoman said she could not comment on the company's plans.
The fear among stevedores is that new competitors will simply fight over the work that is already here. Most stevedoring contracts with ship lines allow cancellation with 30 days' notice.
"What you don't want is a bidding war. I think it would be better if they were to bring new business," said Greg Chambers, port manager for Ceres.
Ceres took over the assets of Clark-Maryland when it suspended stevedoring at Baltimore earlier this year.
Several lines are said by port sources to be considering adding Baltimore to their itineraries. Among them are Yang Ming and OOCL, two Far Eastern carriers that have suspended ship calls at Baltimore in favor of Hampton Roads. Gov. William Donald Schaefer recently met with OOCL executives while on an economic development mission to the Far East.
Also, Senator Linie has announced an agreement to begin Jan. 1 carrying freight for two other lines. Many observers think Senator's expansion will mean it will have to leave its facility in Chester, Pa. O'Malley confirmed that Baltimore officials are trying to persuade Senator to come here.