Potential BethShip buyer walks But three others reportedly consider yard purchase

Bath Iron Works pulls out

U.S. shipbuilder, investor group, Hale studying facility

November 08, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Even as one potential buyer has walked away from BethShip Inc., three others are checking out the Sparrows Point shipyard.

Former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a maritime specialist and a consultant to the port of Baltimore, said Bath Iron Works, a Maine shipbuilder owned by Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics, had looked into a purchase.

"They did turn it down," she said. "Some other people have looked at it, and they're still looking."

Bentley would identify two other interested parties only as an American shipbuilder and a U.S.-based group of investors. On Tuesday, Baltimore shipping executive and banker Edwin F. Hale Sr. said he was exploring a purchase.

Bethlehem Steel Corp. last month said it will sell or shut down BethShip, one of company's four struggling divisions. Bethlehem Steel hasn't set a deadline for selling the divisions. BethShip is accepting only short-term work. Without buyers, shutdowns of the divisions could occur early next year, according to the company.

Bethlehem Steel has said all four divisions have attracted prospective buyers. The company, citing confidentiality agreements, has declined to identify them.

The yard, established in 1890 by the Maryland extension of Pennsylvania Steel Co., is the last major shipyard in the Baltimore region. It employs about 700 people who earn an average of $13.47 an hour.

Among the strengths of the roughly 200-acre yard are its huge graving dock, which is 1,200 feet long and 200 feet wide, and a floating drydock with 40,000-ton lifting capacity.

Paul Hesse, vice president of communications for General Dynamics, yesterday said, "We wouldn't comment on something we looked at or any business we evaluated."

Bath Iron Works, the nation's leading producer of Navy destroyers, employs almost 8,000 people. It has delivered 10 Aegis destroyers to the Navy and has contracts for nine more through 2001.

A source familiar with Bath Iron Works' inquiry said the prospect of buying BethShip ascended to the highest executive levels of General Dynamics before it was ruled out.

The number of prospective buyers may grow with increasing involvement by Baltimore's business and government officials. For instance, U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he plans to discuss the yard with retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Stuart F. Platt, who became a maritime industries executive after his retirement from active duty in 1987.

Hale, who emerged as the first potential buyer, heads Canton-based Hale Intermodal Transport Co., which employs 500 and ships containers on the East Coast by truck and barge. Hale is also chairman of First Mariner Bank.

Bentley said she was concerned that Hale might be interested in BethShip not as a shipyard but as a facility for his container business -- a worry shared by workers.

"Our membership is not in the business of storing containers," said Murphy Thornton, the president of Local Lodge S33 of of the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers of America.

Hale said BethShip wouldn't work as a container facility. "I haven't looked at it from that vantage point," he said. "I think there's a need for a ship repair facility."

Hale also emphasized that he had just started looking at the possibility of a purchase.

"I'm dancing around the periphery here," he said. "There's nothing substantive at all."

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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