Baltimore's rival favored by nature

Halifax: The Canadian city has a harbor to flaunt as it, Baltimore and New York/New Jersey compete to be chosen the new East Coast hub for Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc.

January 03, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia -- The snow fell right to left, tiny whitecaps snapped on the water and fog whistles groaned long in the distance, all of it whipping Halifax Harbour into a modest frenzy. And, inside his waterfront office, David Bellefontaine was just as excited.

He stretched out a map, put a finger on the Atlantic Ocean and dragged it around McNabs Island into a round anchorage called Bedford Basin, just past the center of town. The whole swath, from the ocean inland, was at least 60 feet deep, he explained. Carved by a glacier. Then he sat back in his chair and smiled like a man who'd just said everything worth saying.

"That," Bellefontaine said with a nod of his head, "is God's gift to Halifax."

And that is what the port of Baltimore must contend with in its bid to become an East Coast shipping hub for some of the largest merchant vessels on the globe.

As Maryland officials try to lure the world's top shipping alliance with multimillion-dollar concessions for the city's handicaps of nature, Bellefontaine sits in the president's office of the Halifax Port Corporation presiding over a gift from God.

His harbor is so deep and wide and accessible it's as if Mother Nature built it with big ships in mind.

It is an hour or so from the main North Atlantic trade lanes, protected by a buffer island in the center of its entrance. At the northern end is a straight mile of undeveloped harbor front, with deep water a few feet out and a railroad track alongside. And the harbor never freezes -- another geological gift, this one courtesy of the Gulf Stream beating at its door.

Bellefontaine laughs when he shows his maps and brochures to visitors, much like a salesman whose goods are so perfect they sell themselves. "It's a miracle," he said. "If we had 20 million people at our back door."

The Halifax port director says that without bothering to hide his frustration because he knows he's touched on the defining issue of what has become one of the most closely watched negotiations in the maritime trade in decades.

Shipping giants Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. are expected to announce later this month which port will become their new East Coast hub, and they have selected Halifax, Baltimore and New York/New Jersey as finalists. The potential consequences are considerable: 2,000 or more direct jobs and twice that in economic spinoffs, by some estimations. For the ports of Baltimore and Halifax, the deal could triple their container cargo business overnight.

That a large shipping alliance responsible for about 15 percent of the world's container cargo would abandon New York in favor of a smaller port seemed almost unthinkable before Maersk and Sea-Land announced their intentions to consolidate. The megaport has to be more than just a convenient place to dock ships, it has to have an efficient means of moving the ships' cargo into the major American consumer markets such as New England and the Midwest -- and, most importantly, New York. But New York harbor is too shallow for the next-generation vessels that Maersk and Sea-Land are adding to their fleet, and will require blasting through bedrock to deepen. If New York could guarantee a deeper channel, most analysts say, the contest would end, and the ports of Baltimore and Halifax could return to the more conventional visions of simply enhancing their second-tier status.

But New York's dredging will cost $621 million, and for half that price other cities could build the companies large, modern cargo terminals that the shipping lines could operate any way they please.

And so Baltimore suddenly finds itself competing with the unlikely shipping adversary of Halifax, Nova Scotia -- an oceanfront Canadian city that might well be the world's perfect port, if only it weren't where it is.

The unofficial capital of Atlantic Canada can hardly fathom the advantages Baltimore holds once cargo gets on the ground. Train rides that take six hours from Maryland can take more than a day from Nova Scotia. Trucks take even longer.

Most of the goods shipped into Halifax today are bound for Ontario and Quebec, not the United States. About 30,000 cargo boxes a year travel to the Midwest, and some are ferried on tiny merchant ships to Boston, but Halifax is decidedly a Canadian port of call.

Yet, officials in eastern Canada predict that Halifax will prevail as a superpower of Atlantic shipping. The city has more than its roomy accommodations to offer, they say, mentioning two qualities that make it far different from any of its competitors.

For one, it's in Canada. That makes its labor contracts more flexible and its government fees less costly. Shipping lines calling Halifax can transfer cargo to another ship and send it to the United States -- prohibited between two American cities unless the line's vessels are flagged in the United States.

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