BethShip purchase weighed by Hale Shipping executive, Ruppersberger confer on deal for shipyard

November 06, 1996|By Bill Atkinson and Sean Somerville | Bill Atkinson and Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Baltimore shipping executive and banker Edwin F. Hale Sr. said yesterday that he is investigating acquiring BethShip Inc., the struggling Sparrows Point shipyard.

"I told them I had three main concerns," Hale said of a meeting Friday with Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III. "One was the purchase price, the second is the labor agreement and the third is ground contamination. If there is a way to make a deal, I will do the best I can."

Bethlehem Steel Corp., the owner of BethShip, said last month that it will sell or shut down the 103-year-old yard -- a decision that could cost 700 jobs.

Chairman and CEO Curtis H. Barnette said Bethlehem Steel had identified prospective buyers for BethShip and three other struggling Bethlehem divisions that face shutdown. But he wouldn't name them.

Barnette declined to set a deadline by which the divisions would be closed if they are not sold. He said efforts would continue through 1996 with evaluations in early 1997. He said it's possible the divisions would close then. BethShip is accepting only short-term work.

The company declined further comment yesterday.

Hale heads Hale Intermodal Transport Co., a Canton-based company that employs 500 workers and ships containers up and down the East Coast by truck and barge. He is also chairman of First Mariner Bank.

He said he met with Ruppersberger to express interest in the shipyard and ask the county executive to obtain information about the operation from Bethlehem Steel.

"I think he is pretty serious because he was talking about his port business and expansion," said Robert J. Barrett, an assistant to Ruppersberger who attended the meeting. "It is in his back yard. If it could work out it would definitely be to his advantage."

Hale said he has had ships repaired at BethShip, but with the recent slowdown, he's had to take his business as far away as New York.

"I have one of my largest barges in Brooklyn, N.Y., being repaired because there was no availability at BethShip. I think I could do better down here," Hale said.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican whose 2nd District includes Sparrows Point, said he spoke to Hale several months ago, when Bethlehem Steel first raised the possibility of closing BethShip.

"Ed is a friend, and he gets things done," Ehrlich said yesterday. "He was one of the people I turned to for help. He told me the first time I talked to him about this that he would go anywhere in the world to try to find a buyer. Ed has been someone who loves Baltimore County and cares about the shipyard."

Last year, Ehrlich fought alongside Democratic lawmakers to retain valuable "home port" status for Baltimore -- a designation that gave the shipyard $68 million of Navy work between 1986 and 1995.

The shipyard, which employed about 4,000 people in the middle 1970s, has lost business as the Navy slashed the size of its fleet. In 1994, BethShip attracted only 45 vessels. In 1995, the number fell to 35. Workers earn an average of $13.47 an hour.

"The bottom line is I am an optimist," Ehrlich said. "I would tell you if things were looking bleak. But they're not."

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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