As a young man growing up in Locust Point, Maurice C. Byan saw the port of Baltimore as a vibrant place that had supported generations of longshoremen and seemed likely to give employment for generations to come.
Today Mr. Byan, as president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., has the job of trying to help rescue that vision of the future.
Despite a steady erosion of business in recent years, Mr. Byan believes the port may be on the way back -- perhaps not to its glory days, but he expects to see a reversal of the port's decline and a resumption of modest growth.
"I still see hope in Baltimore," Mr. Byan said yesterday during an interview in his office near the Inner Harbor. Though the port has gone through a seemingly never-ending series of damaging labor disputes during the last three years, peace on the waterfront now seems like a real possibility as a result of the labor contract signed in December following a two-day work stoppage.
"We've got stability within the port now. It's just a matter of proving it," he said.
Mr. Byan was named interim president of the STA in August and confirmed in the post on Jan. 22. Proving to steamship lines that the port really can offer its customers labor stability will be one of the most daunting tasks facing him as head of the STA, which represents employers of ILA labor.
In recent years, maritime businesses and state port officials have repeatedly tried to convince the port's customers that labor, management and the state were working as a team to promote Baltimore. But disputes repeatedly put the lie to the claims that ,, Baltimore could offer a stable labor climate. Understandably, considerable doubt remains that the claims are really true now.
"There's a lot of skepticism," Mr. Byan concedes. He estimates it will take at least a year for Baltimore to convince the skeptics that things have improved. But once that happens, he predicts, people will begin to judge the port on its merits rather than its reputation.
And he argues that those merits are considerable. "We have the best facilities on the East Coast. We know we have the best work force on the East Coast. All we have to do is prove they can work together," he said.
The new labor contract offers management more flexibility in terminal hours and in late-night work shifts than the competition -- the ports of Hampton Roads, Va. -- was able to get from their longshoremen. Moreover, last year the port was able to rid itself of what had long been one of the deepest thorns in its side, the unwillingness of labor to work in inclement weather.
"The port community is starting to pull together. I think we can really promote ourselves as a world class port," he said.
Mr. Byan readily concedes that all the image-polishing in the world will not bring ships to Baltimore if the port's costs are out of line with the competition. He maintains that the port's costs are competitive and perhaps even lower than those in Hampton Roads.
Before his appointment as head of the STA, Mr. Byan was president of Clark Maryland Terminals, a stevedoring company. He took the STA job after Clark Maryland announced it was closing down its stevedoring operations in Baltimore.
Mr. Byan said he could have stayed with Furness Withy `f Terminals Ltd., the parent of Clark Maryland, but that probably would have entailed transferring to another Furness Withy company, perhaps on the West Coast.
It was a prospect Mr. Byan found unenticing, in part because of his family's long association with the Baltimore waterfront. His grandfather, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a Baltimore longshoreman. His father was an ILA clerk in Local 953. His uncle, Steve Byan, is the former president of Local 953. Of the three boys in his family, two of them found work on the docks. Mr. Byan's brother Mike is a member of Local 333. In 1964, while Mr. Byan was still in high school, he began working summers on the docks.
"The waterfront was very busy. In the summertime it was easy to get jobs," he said.
He has been connected with the waterfront ever since. He was a longshoreman until 1969, when he took a job in the operations department of John T. Clark, the predecessor company of Clark Maryland Terminals, and stayed on to become its president.
For three generations, the port of Baltimore has supported Mr. Byan's family. He's not about to give up on it now.
"I look for growth, maybe not of the magnitude people would like to see," he said.
The ports of Hampton Roads, after years of double-digit growth, are beginning to show some strain. There's congestion there, and the Virginia ports are is not as efficient as they would like people to believe, Mr. Byan said.
There is some business to be won, if Baltimore can just get its act together, he said.
"Everybody has the same goal. We want to make the port succeed. We need to get everybody to come together and travel down the same road," he said.
If the factions can put the feuding behind them, then port leaders should at long last be able to say with conviction they are ready to stop fighting with each other and start working on behalf of the port's customers.
"It's believable," Mr. Byan said. "I think the cargo will follow."