Pact with Kuwait may launch boom in shipments from port

May 04, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

The special role granted the port of Baltimore in the rebuilding of Kuwait could turn out to be a bonanza for the port, maritime officials said yesterday.

"What the governor has been able to do is fantastic. The agreement is absolutely fantastic," said Chris Hayes, who in the early 1980s oversaw the shipment of materials from North America to Saudi Arabia for the construction of an airport in Riyadh.

Much of the material for that project moved through Baltimore in 1980-1982. Consequently, those years were among the busiest in the history of the port, Mr. Hayes recalled.

He expects the port to be able to demonstrate again its special strengths for moving project cargoes -- the whole gamut of building materials, construction equipment and furnishings required for large-scale projects such as the construction of an industrial complex, hospital or, in this case, perhaps an entire city.

"This port has the ability to handle projects. Labor proved it. Management proved it. The port administration proved it," Mr. Hayes said. "The governor has given them the chance to prove it again."

M. Sigmund Shapiro, president of Samuel Shapiro & Co. Inc, customs brokers, agreed. "Baltimore had its reputation as a great port for project cargo," he said, and he asserted that the qualities that made Baltimore good at handling such cargo are still here.

The agreement with Kuwait calls for cargo to be shipped through the port and Baltimore-Washington Airport "whenever it is economically feasible." Mr. Hayes said it still makes sense economically to move such cargo through Baltimore.

Substantial amounts of cargo for the reconstruction of Kuwait have already begun moving through the port. One ship, the Ibn Malik, took on cargo for Kuwait at South Locust Point Marine Terminal yesterday, and another, the Allison Lykes, was to load Kuwait-bound cargo today. Benjamin F. Wilson, head of Lavino Shipping Co.'s Baltimore office, said the two vessels would carry lumber, construction cranes and trucks.

The port of Baltimore's decline began in the early 1980s when deregulation of the rail and truck industries removed the advantage that Baltimore, as an inland port close to the industrial Midwest, held over Norfolk, Va.

OC Following deregulation, steamship lines were able to exert much

more influence over the routing of cargo, and they generally preferred ports, such as Norfolk, that were closer to the ocean.

That allowed the lines to avoid the costly and time-consuming trip up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and still serve the same market areas.

But for project cargoes, the old rules of economics that favored Baltimore still apply, according to Mr. Hayes, if the shipper rather than the steamship line can control the choice of ports. And that's exactly what Kuwait seems to be trying to do in naming Baltimore its port of choice.

Because Baltimore is closer to the industrial heartland where much of the cargo will originate, the cost of getting it here will be less than the cost of hauling it all the way to Hampton Roads.

The key to success may be the 90 acres of space the Maryland Port Administration has said it will devote to Kuwait cargo. That space can be used to store large amounts of cargo. "Ships follow cargo, cargo doesn't follow ships," said Mr. Hayes, citing a principle that many in the industry have come to doubt in recent years but that he insisted still applied in the case of large volumes of project cargo.

"You will find ships, new people, who will come to this port to pick that cargo up," he said.

Mr. Shapiro put it this way: "If you've got 2,000 tons of high-paying cargo, they're going to bring the ships here."

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