Port focuses on regional operations

October 11, 1990|By John H. Gormley Jr.

In hopes of increasing the amount of cargo moving over the docks, Baltimore port officials are encouraging development of warehouse and distribution facilities in the region.

It's hardly a new idea, but it's an approach that is becoming a much more important part of the Maryland Port Administration's marketing efforts.

Milton H. Miller Sr., a member of the Maryland Port Commission who is a strong proponent of the idea, said it basically comes down to taking advantage of what the port of Baltimore stands to do best: provide a way for companies to get their products to their customers quickly and in good condition.

In recent years, as the port's market share of general cargo has declined, Baltimore has emerged as the No. 4 port in the United States for automobiles. Mr. Miller argues that the same attributes that make Baltimore a good port for cars should make it a good port for other consumer goods.

According to Mr. Miller, foreign car manufacturers use Baltimore as a port of entry because it provides direct access to the 6 million people in the Baltimore-Washington region, it the fourth-largest consumer market in the country. Automakers have found that the port of Baltimore allows them to get their cars to area showrooms faster and with less damage than other ports do, he said.

"We have to take that lesson and apply it to a whole lot of other industries," Mr. Miller said.

In the past, the MPA has focused its marketing activities on persuading steamship lines to bring their ships to Baltimore and on convincing individual companies that Baltimore was the most efficient and cost-effective port for their shipments.

Those efforts continue, but the new approach represents an effort to extend the marketing focus away from the piers.

Port officials, in trying to encourage businesses to establish distribution centers for their products in the Baltimore area, are in effect marketing the entire region, not just the port, as a good place to do business. If they are successful, new distribution centers will use the port to handle goods that may now be moving through other ports.

Bruce Cashon, director of marketing for the MPA, cites the Calabrian Corp. as an example of what might be accomplished. The New Jersey-based company was operating two distribution centers on the East Coast, in Charleston, S.C., and Newark, N.J. Recently the company decided to consolidate its warehouse operations in Baltimore.

The company now is importing about 10 cargo containers of chemicals a month through the port of Baltimore and using a public warehouse operated by All Freight Distribution on Seaforth Street in Holabird Industrial Park as its East Coast distribution center.

Lynn Harmis, import manager for the company in New Jersey, said Calabrian found it could save money by consolidating its warehousing operations and still provide good service to its customers in the Northeast and Midwest.

Paul Farragut, an MPA marketing representative, has been assigned to work full-time encouraging other companies to establish distribution centers in the area. He is cooperating with real estate brokers and area economic development officials to identify prospects and convince them to establish or expand distribution centers in the region.

Distribution and warehousing sometimes are not accorded high priority in economic development efforts, where success is generally measured in the number of jobs created, Mr. Farragut explained, since modern warehouses are very efficient operations that employ relatively few people.

"Warehousing and distribution are not the sexiest industries going," he observed, but such centers can generate a great deal of associated economic activity, including jobs for truck drivers and port workers.

Such distribution centers also hold the potential to attract what is essentially captive cargo for the port, Mr. Farragut said.

The traditional objects of the port's marketing effort -- steamship lines and shippers -- can easily switch ports on short notice. By contrast, a business whose cargo is handled by a distribution center close to a port tends to move through that one port, to save time and money.

"There are a number of things in the works," Mr. Farragut said. "We feel positive and upbeat that people will realize the advantages of locating in proximity to the port of Baltimore."

Mr. Miller said the time has come for port officials and business people in Baltimore to stop wringing their hands over the success that Norfolk, Va., and other ports to the south have had in recent years in luring away steamship lines and cargo.

"We shouldn't be spending the rest of our lives thinking about how to get business back from there," he said. Instead, he said, Baltimore should focus on its special qualities that other ports can't duplicate.

Citing a basic precept of business, Mr. Miller said, "You go where the business is."

To his mind, the Baltimore-Washington area, with its large population, high average household income and fast growth, fits that description precisely.

"We have a warm feeling," Mr. Cashon said. "We're headed in the right direction."

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