With the growth of cargo nearly coming to a halt in the second half of 1995, officials at the port of Baltimore plan to boost marketing efforts in 1996 to lure more shipping traffic here.
"One of my strategic issues is to be more aggressive and more targeted and focused in marketing," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration since August. "1996 will be very challenging."
Underscoring the importance of attracting more ships and cargo, Mr. Yoshitani has created a new, high-level post of director of strategic planning and business development at the MPA. He plans to fill the job early next year.
In recent years, steamship lines that once called at a half-dozen ports on the East Coast have been choosing fewer and fewer ports in an effort to save time and money. Faced with intense competition from other ports, Baltimore must carefully target cargo, rather than assuming that it is positioned to capture everything, Mr. Yoshitani said.
Indeed, Baltimore's location -- 12 hours up the Chesapeake Bay -- is a significant disadvantage, particularly for larger ships that cost as much as $50,000 a day to operate.
Yet the port's proximity to the nation's fourth largest market is an asset.
"We need to be smart and identify those kinds of cargo where we have a competitive advantage or where we can compete viably," he said. "That's not all cargo."
In recent years, efforts to capture specific cargo -- such as farm and construction equipment produced in Midwest factories -- have resulted in significant gains here. In 1994, cargo handled at the state's marine terminals topped 6 million short tons, growing 17 percent over the previous year.
But with some steamship lines cutting back and Navieras abandoning all service here, business has tapered off.
While still on pace to top 6 million short tons, the growth rate will increase "only slightly" in 1995, Mr. Yoshitani said.
Adding to the port's challenges in 1996 will be the upcoming negotiations between major employers and the International Longshoremen's Association, AFL-CIO. The contract governing nearly 1,800 active dockworkers expires in September.
With competition for cargo fierce among East Coast ports, labor costs are seen as critical. At some ports, unionized workers already have lowered their hourly rates for handling certain types of cargo, such as break bulk, and at others the number of nonunion workers is growing.
Among the key local contract issues will be the size and continuation of employer contributions to the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) fund, which assures longshoremen a basic level of income even when they're not working.
In the past 18 months, the Steamship Trade Association, representing the port's major employers, has tried unsuccessfully to reach a deal with the port's largest longshoremen's local to eliminate the GAI.
In addition, the local talks are likely to focus on changes in work rules, such as the size of gangs loading and unloading cargo.
After enduring several bitter labor strikes in the early 1990s, the port has seen labor-management relations improve dramatically during the past two years.
"The negotiations will be very tough," Mr. Yoshitani predicted.
"But there's clear recognition by management and labor leadership that harmony benefits everyone."