Another home run for the port

No. 4 shipping firm signs 10-year pact doubling containers

March 07, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

A major shipping company has agreed to a 10-year contract with the state that will more than double the amount of cargo it brings to Maryland and help the port of Baltimore solidify its tenuous position in the lucrative containerized cargo trade.

The deal with Mediterranean Shipping Co. is the latest in a series of wins for Baltimore as it strives to rebuild its reputation as a major East Coast port by aggressively pursuing forest products, automobiles, tractors and other niche cargo. The additional container business will bring the port a minimum of $75 million in revenue over the 10-year deal and significantly boost union man-hours.

The agreement, expected to be signed next week by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, requires MSC to bring a minimum of 350,000 containers through the port over 10 years. The shipping company and state officials agree that the number could go much higher.

State officials described it as the port's largest container contract. "When the No. 4 carrier in the world signs an agreement with you, it's pretty gratifying," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the port's public marine terminals.

The deal comes about a month after port officials signed a minimum 20-year contract with Scandinavian shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen that could double the number of automobiles and heavy equipment that move through the port. That agreement was hailed as the largest shipping deal in the port's 295-year history.

MSC's current contract calls for it to bring just 16,000 containers to Baltimore per year. However, the company brought about 47,000 containers to the port in 2000, making it the port of Baltimore's largest customer for container business.

"We are talking in the future; we hope to reach 100,000 containers altogether [per year]," said Capt. E. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, vice president for the Geneva-based company's Baltimore operation.

Containerized cargo is coveted by ports because it tends to generate a large number of longshoreman jobs and port revenue relative to other types of cargo. Baltimore handles about 300,000 containers annually, but has seen its share of the market decline steadily over the past 10 years. The business picked up slightly last year compared with 1999 figures.

Once a relatively small player in the container shipping trade, MSC became the first customer to make use of the port's Seagirt Marine Terminal about 11 years ago. The company has steadily grown, leapfrogging other container shipping lines to become the No. 4 carrier in the world and a major player in the Northeast.

Baltimore is poised to become a significant source of growth for the carrier on the East Coast. In addition to more containers, MSC will make Baltimore its first port of call from Europe. Di Casagrande said the additional European cargo will be unloaded in Baltimore and then transferred to a ship bound for South America. The new service also will result in an additional ship call from South America each week, bringing to four the number of MSC ship calls per week. Inbound cargo from South America will consist mostly of Chrysler engine parts produced in Brazil and destined for Detroit auto manufacturing plants.

"Our hours were down a little bit [last year]" said Clifton Gross, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association in Baltimore. "But all of this new work that's supposed to be coming should elevate those hours."

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