Bentley declares port has ended its long decline

December 13, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

The port of Baltimore has begun to reverse its decline, thanks in large part to better cooperation among labor, management and the state, Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, said yesterday.

"While it is uncertain how total cargo tonnage will fare for the year, it could be said -- and should be said -- that 1991 is the year the port of Baltimore began its rejuvenation," she said at a luncheon at the Lord Baltimore Hotel marking her selection by the Baltimore Junior Association of Commerce as port leader of the year.

To justify her optimism that the port may finally have stopped the steady loss of its business to other ports, Mrs. Bentley cited a long list of successes Baltimore has achieved in the last year, including signing Maersk Line to an unprecedented 10-year lease and luring Orient Overseas Container Line back to the port. OOCL, which left in 1984, was one of the first major lines to shift its business from Baltimore to Hampton Roads, Va.

Mrs. Bentley said the brightening prospects are the result of a greater spirit of cooperation in the port, as well as more effective leadership at the Maryland Port Administration.

"I firmly believe we are succeeding," she said. "Evidence is clear that there is renewed confidence in Baltimore -- on the part of shippers as well as on the part of ocean carriers."

She took encouragement from the fact that general-cargo tonnage rose by more than 4 percent during the first six months of the year.

Although most of that gain was wiped out in the third quarter, leaving the port's tonnage after nine months just slightly ahead of totals for the same period last year, the setback was due to the weak economy, not problems at the port, Mrs. Bentley said.

"I believe Baltimore's cargo tonnage performance during the first half of the year strongly indicates that we are doing the correct things to turn the port's economic fortunes around," she said.

Mrs. Bentley cited railroad deregulation and maritime industry trends as the root causes of the port's decline.

Those problems were greatly aggravated during the last few years by a turbulent labor climate marked by two strikes and a major dispute over jobs at the state-owned rail yard adjoining Seagirt Marine Terminal. During that period, relations between the International Longshoremen's Association and the state port agency were very poor.

During the luncheon, however, ILA leaders shared a table with the top officials of the MPA. Edward Burke, the president of ILA Local 333, the largest in the port, said after the speech that his main goal now is to increase the amount of work in the port and that he is ready to continue to work closely with the MPA.

That cooperation will include accompanying MPA officials on visits to steamship line officials in the hope of persuading them to send their ships to Baltimore.

"We plan on going [with the MPA] to represent the port. We want the work and need the work," Mr. Burke said.

Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said that he is confident the many successes the port has had in the last year will soon be reflected in the cargo totals.

"You're not going to have instant gratification," he observed. But the business being done by OOCL and other new customers should have an impact on the cargo figures. "The little things that combine are going to make the difference," he said.

Mrs. Bentley agreed. "It is a turnaround, very definitely a turnaround," she said.

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