A decade ago Baltimore was booming with cargo bound for major construction projects in the Middle East. Today the port will be working in a much more competitive environment to convince shippers that Baltimore still has what it takes to handle such specialized cargo skillfully and economically.
The key could be how well the Maryland Port Administration and other interested parties market the port to the shippers who will besending goods for the massive job of repairing the damage done by the war in the Persian Gulf.
"It's up to all of us to sell the port," Maurice C. Byan, president of Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc. said yesterday. The STA represents employers of unionized dockworkers.
Baltimore could have several advantages in what is expected to be intense competition among ports for the heavy construction equipment, building materials, industrial machinery and other supplies that will soon start flowing to Kuwait to rebuild the nation.
The last Middle East construction boom ended in the early 1980s, just as the port of Baltimore began losing market share, particularly to the ports of Hampton Roads, Va., at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Much of that decline occurred because operators of containerships found it faster and cheaper to operate out of Hampton Roads, which is just a few miles away from the Atlantic.
The question now is whether the same economic forces that made Hampton Roads and other Southern ports more attractive for containerized cargo will also lure the Kuwait-bound heavy cargo away from Baltimore.
Mr. Byan said Baltimore's losses in recent years could turn out to be an advantage. While the docks in Hampton Roads are piled high with containers, Baltimore has the room needed to handle heavy equipment and other project cargo.
"We're got space, tons of it," he said.
Containers can be stacked four or five high in storage areas, but project cargo usually must be spread out over a large area. "Baltimore can offer the facilities for marshaling the cargo for a large project," he said.
San Francisco-based Bechtel Group Inc. has won a large contract to manage the reconstruction of Kuwait's heavily damaged oil production facilities. That could be a boost for Baltimore, since Bechtel used the port of Baltimore to handle materialsfor projects in Saudi Arabia.
Larry Miller, a spokesman of Bechtel, said the Kuwait projects will be managed from London and goods will be procured worldwide. It was too early to say to what extent any of the cargo would go through Baltimore, he said.
Richmond, Va.-based CSX Corp. has also won a contract to help in the reconstruction. Its Arlington, Va. based subsidiary, CSX/Sea-Land Logistics Inc., will be in charge of managing the transportation of emergency relief supplies to Kuwait. The port of Baltimore has been working closely with CSX to try to increase cargo volumes through the port. CSX Intermodal, another CSX subsidiary operates a state-owned rail yard adjoining the Seagirt Marine Terminal.
Initial reports of that contract led many to believe that CSX would be in charge of the movement of most of the goods needed for the reconstruction of Kuwait. CSX said Wednesday that the contract involved only emergency relief materials. The company left open the possibility of an expanded contract.
Michael Spieker, a vice president of operations for NOSAC North America Inc., a Norwegian steamship line, said that Baltimore's proximity to major manufacturers in the Midwest could help the port win some of the project cargo. Specialized equipment will be required to get much of the heavy equipment to the port and distance will have an important impact on rates, he said. That should help Baltimore, which is closer than any other port to manufacturers in the Midwest.