New law is boost to Curtis Bay yard

Coast Guard allowed private clients there

Mikulski is credited

March 27, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

It might seem like an odd frustration for a guy whose job is to find work for a shipyard, but Richard G. Hare always hated it when businesses called looking to make a deal.

"Industry has been coming to us for years, saying, `We'd like to work with you.' On all types of stuff," said Hare, business manager for the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay. "And even if it was a great idea, we had to say, `No, we can't do that. It's illegal.' "

It's not illegal anymore. A new law signed by President Bush in December allows the Coast Guard's shipyard in southern Baltimore to enter partnerships with private companies. The new law also makes it easier for the shipyard to bid on work for the Pentagon - possible before, but difficult.

Controversial among private shipyards - they consider it unfair competition - the new law was designed to preserve the skilled work force at Curtis Bay, the Coast Guard's only shipbuilder and large repair facility.

"This is not about guaranteeing them anything; it gives them the option to compete," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, author of the legislation. "I happen to believe that you need an industrial base and you need the ability to make ships, and this helps preserve that. This shipyard is truly a national asset."

The Baltimore Democrat visited the shipyard yesterday, and was given a standing ovation by hundreds of assembled yard workers in dirty coveralls. It was not her first trip. Mikulski is largely credited with keeping the yard open in 1997, by pushing for transfer of a supply center to Curtis Bay and persuading Congress to finance an $18 million ship-lift for large-vessel repairs.

In a brief speech that resembled a war rally at times, Mikulski said the Baltimore shipyard would play a critical role in defending the nation's coastlines, by repairing and upgrading the Coast Guard patrol vessels. And new non-Coast Guard projects will keep the yard's mostly civilian work force of 600 primed for future emergencies, she said.

In use since 1899, the yard is at work resurfacing the hulls on several 110-foot Coast Guard cutters and reconstructing much of the interior of the 378-foot Dallas, a high-endurance offshore cutter. It also specializes in overhauling the Coast Guard's 76 mm deck guns.

Shipyard officials say the new law is already showing promises of new work. The yard is working with a local vessel-design firm to provide engineering and technical support for a floating runway for fixed-wing aircraft that could be assembled from high-speed catamarans, a project still in its early development phase.

Opponents of the new law say that is precisely what they feared - a government-owned business landing work that would otherwise have gone to a private, commercial enterprise.

"This isn't creating any new work, it's just moving work that had been done in a private shipyard over to the Coast Guard's yard in Curtis Bay," said Allen Walker, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, a trade group of small shipyards.

"Nobody wants work to leave Maryland, we just think it could be done in a commercial yard."

At yesterday's rally, workers struggled to clutch their hard hats and safety glasses as they applauded and cheered. They came, several admitted, as much for the guaranteed 15-minute break as for the politics, but were happy to hear a U.S. senator promise to fight for their jobs.

Chet Mitchell, a 48-year-old iron-shop worker from Rosedale, said he rejoined the shipyard in January after a 13-month layoff, during which he drove tractor-trailers.

The on-and-off schedule is common among "term" workers like Mitchell, who aren't permanent employees and whose jobs depend on the work available.

Anything that brings more work, he said, is welcome.

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